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What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD); More Than Just The Winter Blues

sad girl looking out window|what is seasonal affective disorder SAD |more than just the winter blues

Don’t you just love the fall. The weather starts getting cooler, and you can finally wear jeans and your favorite sweater. But have you ever found that after the fall season, that your energy levels start to drop. Do you find yourself needing more time off in winter? Or maybe you just feel like you desperately miss the sun. Just like depression, symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can include feelings of hopelessness and can evoke changes in sleeping and eating patterns.

When the nights get longer and the weather gets colder, it can feel harder to stay motivated. When the temperatures drop, feeling less enthused is pretty normal; however, feeling very bleak and down during the winter months could be much more than you think. It’s not just all in your head.

Here are 5 ways to naturally treat SAD:

  • Get more light in your life
  • Stay active
  • Yoga and meditation
  • Talk to someone
  • Eat well

What Exactly is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder or SAD is a type of major depression with a seasonal pattern that usually takes place during the same seasons of the year. The depressive episodes are recurrent and happen each year at the same time. The condition is sometimes referred to as the “winter blues” because the episodes of depression can often occur in the fall or winter then lift in spring.

It’s thought that SAD affects 19 million Americans and another 10 to 20% of U.S adults may have mild SAD symptoms. SAD appears to be more common in women than men with the age of onset estimated to be between 18 and 30. Despite its name, SAD is more than just the winter blues. It’s not uncommon to feel a little glum during the colder, winter months but with SAD, depressive episodes can be very intense and really affect your quality of life.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

woman holding ears in winter|what causes seasonal affective disorde

The precise causes of SAD are still unclear; however, scientists have pinpointed a few likely causes that may influence SAD. Your biological clock or circadian rhythm may play a part in causing SAD. Due to the reduced levels of sunlight in fall and winter, the decrease in sunlight may actually disrupt your internal clock leading to bodily confusion and eventual feelings of depression.

Your serotonin and melatonin levels may also play a part in developing SAD. Serotonin is a hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter, carrying signals throughout your body. It’s found mainly in your intestines but also in your central nervous system (CNS), which includes your brain, and your blood platelets. When serotonin levels drop, it can affect your mood. A decrease in sunlight can reduce serotonin levels in your body which may trigger depression.

Melatonin can also influence SAD. Melatonin is a natural hormone made by your body's pineal (pih-knee-uhl) gland. Melatonin is heavily involved in your sleep patterns and mood. The change in seasons can disrupt your body’s melatonin levels and may also contribute to SAD. You might also be very affected by certain temperatures, hot or cold, which could be a factor in developing depression at those specific times.

Although more research is needed to truly understand the causes of SAD, medical professionals suspect that it’s related to the lack of sunlight during shorter and colder winter days. Additionally, lack of sunlight and warm weather affect ability to perform many outdoor activities including exercise, which may also influence SAD.

What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Although it’s often thought that SAD refers to the autumn and winter months, SAD can occur as a summer depression too. This is less common and typically starts in late spring or summer and lifts in autumn. I believe this happens especially in states such as Florida and Texas when the summer weather can sometimes become too hot to the point that going outside no longer feels pleasant in the slightest. This change in activity can also affect circadian rhythm

It is important to know that not everyone who suffers from SAD presents the same symptoms. Every individual is unique and it may impact you in a different way compared to someone else.

Combatting Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Depression this Winter

Symptoms that are commonly associated with SAD are similar to those suffering from normal depression including:

  • Decrease in energy levels
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Weight gain
  • Change in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Persistent low mood
  • Stressed or anxious
  • Tearful
  • Feelings of despair and worthlessness
  • Avoiding social situations
  • Loss of pleasure in normal everyday activities

If you find that these symptoms worsen or start to affect your day, it’s best to consult a doctor about your depression and to seek treatment.

Get More Light in Your Life

Young woman walking in a field|light therapy for seasonal affective disorder SAD

The more natural light you can get the better. As vitamin D is said to help with SAD, getting out in the sun will help your body to produce more of the “sunshine vitamin”. If weather permits, take a 20 minute walk around noon when the sun is highest in the sky. Even if it’s cloudy, you will be getting fresh air and natural light.

Light therapy lamps are another great way to get the light you need during the harsh winter months. Doctors believe light therapy helps regulate neurotransmitters related to mood and sleep during the winter months when you aren't exposed to as much natural light on a daily basis. A light box that mimics the sun's rays picks up the slack when it's cold and snowing outside. When you're choosing a light box, pick one with a 10,000 lux exposure that filters out harmful UV rays to protect your eyes.

Related Article: Natural Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder – SAD

Stay Active

woman standing on rock

You can try to combat the winter slump with exercise. No matter the time of year, staying active is good for both your body and mind. Taking part in weekly regular exercise can be effective against depression.

It’s recommended that you aim for 30 minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week. According to researchers at the University of British Colombia, regular aerobic exercise can change the brain and improve mood and thinking skills.

If you don’t feel up to vigorous exercise, a walk on the treadmill, a quick HIIT workout or practicing yoga will still get your blood moving and release endorphins. Those endorphins are the feel-good hormone which will make you feel happier naturally.

Yoga and Meditation

woman practicing yoga

There are ways you can make changes to your routine to help ease your SAD symptoms. One method is to incorporate relaxation exercises into your day such as guided meditation, yoga or breathing exercises.

With certain parts of the year being more stressful than others, finding ways to relax may help to reduce feelings commonly associated with SAD. The breathwork associated with yoga may also help you feel more aligned and centered. Yoga is also excellent exercise and releases positive endorphins as well. That post-workout high feels great, and your body will thank you.

Talk to Someone

group of friends laughing over coffee

If you feel like you’re experiencing symptoms of SAD, always talk to someone and get help. There are several talking therapies that have been found to be effective at combating depression.

Self-care can be an important part of treating SAD so be sure to plan fun activities that allow you to be active as well as social. Even if you don’t feel up to being social, it’s best to commit to trying to be social for at least an hour. If you still feel like being alone, then you can leave. But you may find that you actually start to enjoy yourself after an hour or so and feel up to staying.

Whether you want to talk to a counselor, experienced professional or friend, it’s always better to talk to someone about your symptoms.

Eat Well

woman chopping food with knife

Although it’s tempting to reach for sugary sweets to satisfy your winter cravings, it’s important to focus on healthy food choices. Try to avoid overly processed and refined foods and cut back on the junk carbs. Limit your alcohol as alcohol is a depressant and may leave you feeling worse off long-term. Healthy food choices have the nutrients that allow your body to function at an optimal level.

Aim to eat lots of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to give your body the fuel it needs to thrive. Whole foods are far more nutrient dense and will actually make you feel better than the typical sugary food of the season.

Seasonal affective disorder or SAD is more than just the winter blues, it’s a major depressive disorder. On an individual level, depression can massively impact your quality of life. With the changes in the seasons, lack of sunlight and cold temperatures, a large portion of the population find themselves facing difficulties from SAD. By understanding the causes and symptoms of SAD, you can identify when you need to get help and find a treatment that’s right for you.

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