Do you feel more run down in the colder months? Maybe you feel constantly drained and disengaged, or just want to curl up and sleep until spring like a bear. If this sounds like you, you may be one of 100 million Americans who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
More than just a fitting acronym, SAD is a type of depression that is related to the change in seasons and is most often seen in those living in the Northern Hemisphere. For some people, the effects can be debilitating and impact multiple facets of their life.
In this article, we will take a deep dive into SAD and talk about what you can do to ease the symptoms.
What causes a shift in well-being in the winter?
With the days getting shorter, the nights longer and colder, and the sun altogether non-existent some days, the transition to fall and winter can cause several changes in our bodies, which can lead to symptoms of depression. These shifts include:
- Your circadian rhythm: When our biological clocks are thrown off by the lack of sunlight, our body’s cues for sleep can become disrupted and lead to feelings of depression.
- Serotonin: With more time spent indoors, we aren’t getting a natural dose of the sun’s Vitamin D in the winter, which is tied to our levels of serotonin. This mood-altering brain chemical can experience a drop when there is a lack of sunlight.
- Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone that helps trigger sleep once the body is exposed to darkness. In months when the sun sets much earlier, this can also disrupt our bodies.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
SAD is a form of depression, so many of the symptoms are similar, including:
- Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Feeling lethargic and fatigued
- Trouble sleeping
- Inability to focus
- Withdrawal and isolation from loved ones
- Changes in appetite and weight
- Feelings of guilt or hopelessness
It is important to point out that to be diagnosed with SAD, these symptoms must interfere with your daily functioning. This brings us to our next point:
Isn’t SAD just the winter blues?
Even though these two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, SAD is different than the more commonly known “winter blues.” The winter blues are more of a funk that might cause a shift in mood over the course of a day or so. This is normal for everyone, even those who have no prior history of depression. There is no mental health diagnosis for the winter blues and while they can make us feel “out of it” for a few days, it does not interfere with our ability to function.
But in the case of SAD, these symptoms are much more severe and typically last for several weeks or longer. That is why is it is important to recognize the symptoms you are feeling and not simply dismiss them as a temporary funk. Pay attention to how you are feeling, how it is affecting you and for how long. As always, you should speak with a doctor or mental health professional about any concerning symptoms you have.
Is SAD just a winter occurrence?
Though most common in the Northern Hemisphere during the winter months, SAD can take place during any season. And in some rare cases, it can occur in the summer. In this case, SAD stems from the inability to adapt to summer’s longer days, the reverse effect of our bodies reacting to the early darkness.
How is SAD treated?
Fortunately, you don’t have to go through the cold winter months feeling down in the dumps. Whether you are having the winter blues or experiencing symptoms of SAD, some lifestyle changes can help you improve your mood:
- Set a regular wake up and sleep schedule
- Release endorphins through exercise
- Connect with friends and family
- Eat a balanced diet
- Try Vitamin D
- Learn to set boundaries
If you are experiencing symptoms of SAD and not just a winter funk, your doctor may suggest the use of light therapy. By simulating natural sunlight, light boxes or lamps can stimulate melatonin, serotonin and vitamin D if used for short periods of time. They are widely available to purchase, but make sure you do your research first or ask your doctor what they recommend. Make sure you monitor your moods and make note of them to help determine if light therapy is working.
For those without SAD symptoms wanting to try a light box, make sure you check with your doctor if you have a condition like bipolar disorder, as the light could trigger symptoms. Follow the directions carefully and reach out to your doctor or mental health professional with any questions.
The bottom line: SAD can be debilitating in the colder months, but there are ways to cope. Lifestyle changes and light therapy can help boost your mood and stimulate the chemicals that would normally be produced by natural sunlight. Connect with your doctor or mental health professional with any concerning symptoms you may have.
This article has been updated from its original published date of December 16, 2021.