The days are shorter, the sky is darker, the air is colder, and… Have you noticed a significant decline in your mental health? Do you lack energy and feel “heavy”? Have you noticed an increase in your appetite and weight? Maybe an increase in craving sweets or starches? Are you oversleeping and possibly more irritable and emotionally sensitive? It’s not a coincidence. You may have a disorder called SAD.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or more commonly known as the “winter blues” or “winter depression”, is a temporary depression directly related to the changes in seasons. Per the American Academy of Family Physicians, SAD affects roughly 500,000 annually with one in four Americans having experiencing mild symptoms of winter depression.
If you’re one of the many with SAD, you’ll notice your symptoms arise annually in the late fall and continue into the winter months. Along with the above-mentioned symptoms, someone suffering from SAD can experience feelings of hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, and a loss of interest in otherwise enjoyable activities. Having the winter blues can be burdensome, but there is relief in knowing SAD symptoms resolve on their own with the onset of sunnier spring days.
What Causes SAD?
Although the specific cause of SAD has yet to be discovered, it is believed to be linked to the shorter days and lack of sunlight in winter. The lack of natural light causes a biochemical imbalance with a decrease in serotonin levels (a brain chemical that affects mood), and an increase in melatonin production (a brain chemical that affects your sleep-wake patterns).
How Can I Treat the Winter Blues On My Own?
While there is comfort in knowing that seasonal depression eventually dissipates, if you’re suffering from a mild case of SAD, there are ways to elevate your quality of life during the winter months:
- Natural Light Exposure – Try to expose yourself to as much natural light as possible. Take a twenty-minute walk, as the weather allows, to promote vitamin D production. Position yourself to take in sunlight from windows when indoors to set your body clock. For more robust exposure, you can also purchase a light therapy desk lamp and utilize it at least an hour a day, preferably in the early evenings.
- Take Your Vitamins – A lack of vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, contributes to SAD. It is recommended to take 2,000 UD daily by The Vitamin D Council. Other vitamins that can help combat winter depression are fish oil supplements with at least 600 milligrams of combined EPA/DHA daily, vitamin C, and a B-Complex vitamin. Drink plenty of water and be sure to add vitamins as a supplement to a well-rounded, nutritious diet.
- Monitor Your Diet – Overeating is a common symptom of SAD, so it is necessary for you to be mindful of what you eat and how often. Experts recommend a diet rich in protein, (chicken, fish, eggs, dairy) and plenty of complex carbohydrates (whole grains, sweet potatoes, starchy vegetables) that stabilizes your blood sugar and keeps your energy levels up. Stay away from sugar as much as possible, which is highly addictive and causes sudden drops in blood sugar, which not only keeps you eating, but causes violent mood swings and increases depression.
- Exercise – There are countless proven studies stating that exercise alleviates depression. Exercise naturally raises levels of serotonin and increases levels of endorphin. Twenty minutes of exercise, three times a week, has been known to give significant relief to those who suffer depression and, in some cases, work more effectively than prescribed antidepressants.
- Utilize Color – Warm colors, such as red, orange, and yellow, have been known to stimulate moods, increase energy and stimulate productivity. Cut through the grey gloom by surrounding yourself with bright colors to bolster your spirits.
- Be Social – If you’re struggling with the winter blues, this can be difficult, but it is important to have support from friends and family. Laughter and human touch releases endorphin much like exercising does. Socializing can temporarily distract you from depressive symptoms and your support system comes in handy when you’re feeling defeated. Don’t push yourself, but don’t isolate yourself, either, as this can only increase your SAD symptoms.
While many consider the winter blues to be a myth, Seasonal Affective Disorder is very real, and should be treated accordingly.
“It is important to treat SAD, because all forms of depression limit people’s ability to live their lives to the fullest, to function well at work,” says Deborah Pierce, MD, MPH, clinical associate professor of family medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York.
If you’re suffering with the winter blues and your symptoms become more severe, such as thoughts of suicide, don’t hesitate to seek medical help. Therapy and a supervised regiment of mild antidepressants offers support, relief, and hope when SAD becomes severe.
During the upcoming winter months, stay warm knowing sunnier days are ahead.