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Sadness and Depression in Winter: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Layne is a natural health enthusiast and has a technical medical background. She loves sharing her favorite health findings with others.

Feeling the winter blues? Maybe it's seasonal mood disorder.

Feeling the winter blues? Maybe it's seasonal mood disorder.

Why Do I Feel Depressed in the Winter?

If you're like me and your mood takes a slump once fall or winter comes around and you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you may be suffering from seasonal mood disorder or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The condition is marked by a change in mood when the amount of sunlight during the day begins to decrease.

If you think about it from a biological standpoint, it really makes sense. Animals go into hibernation and normal activities decrease, and since humans are indeed animals, we can't deny that we are sensitive to the same natural changes. In fact, our circadian rhythm which controls our sleep cycles and hormonal balance in the body is extremely susceptible and even controlled by light cycles (as with all living things).

Why Does Decreased Sunlight Affect Mood?

ContributorImpactResult

Circadian Rhythm

Disrupted

Controls sleep, reproduction, hormone synthesis, and major biological functions.

Serotonin

Decreased

Marked moodiness.

Melatonin

Increased

Regulates and encourages sleep.

Vitamin D

Deficient

Reduced serotonin production.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal affective disorder or SAD is a condition where an individual's mood is impacted by the change in seasons. Depression is often noted in individuals at the onset of fall and early winter in those who are susceptible to it. Other individuals may experience increased moodiness. The theory behind this condition is that limited light in the winter months affects the body's natural biological rhythm. Some individuals may even experience SAD in the summer although it is often linked to cold weather and winter primarily.

The Winter Doldrums

According to WebMD.com, SAD affects 3% (9 million individuals) in the U.S. population annually. The American Academy of Family Physicians also noted that some 20% of the population may experience mild symptoms, which include:

  • weight gain
  • excessive sleep
  • daytime drowsiness
  • disinterest in regular activities

Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Real?

Yes. According to WebMD.com, researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health identified the condition in 1984. SAD is actually a subtype or specifier of major depressive disorder.

Individuals who live in the Northern Hemisphere are more susceptible to SAD as are women. With the effects of decreased sunlight on the body, there is an observed decrease in serotonin and melatonin levels in the brain, which control mood (happiness) and sleep respectively.

Women's increased susceptibility to the condition is thought to be related to hormonal fluctuations in the winter months; it was noted that menopausal women often don't show symptoms of SAD.

Sleeping in? Can't get out of bed? You may be suffering from SAD.

Sleeping in? Can't get out of bed? You may be suffering from SAD.

How Do You Know If You Have Seasonal Affective Disorder?

I simply notice a slight change in my mood and activity level. It takes more energy for me to take interest in activities, I may have irregular sleep cycles, and I may feel more apathetic than I normally do in the summer months. If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms for more than several days or a week, you may want to work with a health professional:

  • anxiety
  • loneliness
  • sadness
  • irritability
  • isolation
  • depression
  • marked weight gain
  • mood swings
  • sleep disturbances (insomnia or excess sleep)

What Makes You Susceptible to Winter Depression?

Certain individuals may be more prone to the condition. These characteristics include:

  • being female
  • having a predisposition to depression or bipolar disorder
  • having a family history of depression
  • teenager and adults over the age of 20
  • living far away from the equator
  • living in an area prone to winter weather

How to Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder and Great Rid of Symptoms

  • Medication: Antidepressants are commonly prescribed for SAD. Some individuals who are prone to depression may benefit from anticipating the onset of SAD before the seasonal shift either by starting medication or adjusting doses based on their physician's recommendations and oversight. Many antidepressants take weeks or months to be effective, so it is best to anticipate the condition before the January blues set in.
  • Psychotherapy: Talking to a therapist may be of great benefit. A therapist or counselor may help an individual find ways to make little lifestyle changes, dissolve negative thinking patterns, and incorporate relaxation techniques into a daily routine.
  • Light therapy: Phototherapy is a popular mode of treatment for seasonal affective disorder. With this mode of therapy, a lightbox or special lamp is used to mimic natural sunlight. Low levels of exposure throughout the day or first thing in the morning may help to suppress excess melatonin production.

How to Deal With Seasonal Affective Disorder

These are techniques that I use to boost my mood in the winter months:

  • Happy Lamp: I used a happy lamp in the winter months since I am sensitive to decreased sunlight. I use the happy lamp during the daytime while I'm working and it increases my general alertness and overall wellbeing. Most individuals use it for 30 minutes a day. Light exposure helps to decrease melatonin production and may be especially helpful for getting up in the morning.
  • Dawn Simulators: These clocks or alarm clocks use full-spectrum light to imitate the sun. Instead of waking up to blaring music or a startling alarm, wake up gradually to full-spectrum light. This modality has been shown to be extremely helpful for SAD sufferers.
  • Nature Walks: Some light is better than no light at all. Rather than staying indoors all day, gear up and get outside for some fresh air and go for a nature walk. A little bit of naturally occurring UV rays and a vitamin D boost may offer a mini mood bump.
  • Aromatherapy: Whereas certain essential oils help induce sleep—like lavender—other essential oils help with alertness, like peppermint, sage, basil, and lemon. You can use these oils in a diffuser or properly dilute them in a carrier oil for application. Always practice safe essential oil use and work with your physician if you are pregnant or nursing.
  • Exercise: It's inarguable that exercise is good for the mind, body, and spirit, and serves as an instant mood-booster. Try to stick to a schedule and enroll in a repeating exercise class or set a schedule on your calendar for regular activity.
Learn how to manage the symptoms of SAD and enjoy the winter wonderland.

Learn how to manage the symptoms of SAD and enjoy the winter wonderland.

Can You Experience SAD in the Summer?

Yes. Though less common, it is possible. SAD in the summer months is characterized by the following symptoms:

  • weight loss
  • irritability and agitation
  • inappetence
  • insomnia
  • anxiety

Self-Care Is the Best Prevention

We are all unique, so it's important to listen to your body (and your doctor) more than everything else. If you are experiencing unusual symptoms, I recommend keeping a journal of what you notice so you can provide it to your health-care professional.

Healthy eating, regular sleep, and regular exercise are the first steps toward healthy living. Also, consider working on reducing stress levels in your daily life. Here's to happy, healthy living!

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2018 Layne Holmes