What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (sad)?
Lots of folks feel the blues creeping up on them once days start to get darker and shorter. The wintertime blues can have a whole spectrum of causes and can manifest in many different ways. However, if you feel especially exhausted and down in the fall and winter time you may be experiencing seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year, usually in the fall or winter. SAD is thought to be caused by a combination of factors, including a lack of sunlight and changes in the levels of certain chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (sad)?
The symptoms of SAD are similar to those of other forms of depression. They include feeling hopeless, worthless, or helpless; feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day; having low energy; losing interest in activities that were once enjoyable; having difficulty concentrating; experiencing changes in appetite or weight; feeling irritable or agitated; having trouble sleeping; and thoughts of death or suicide.
SAD symptoms and the wintertime blues exist on a spectrum and look different for everyone. Seasonal depression symptoms can also come and go like depression and don't always come along as major depressive episodes, but can also manifest in more subtle feelings of hopelessness, withdrawing from high-energy moments and feeling overly emotional or a lack of emotion. It can feel challenging to get excited about activities that would usually feel uplifting and may frequently affect social activities.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder (sad)?
While the exact cause of SAD is unknown, it is believed to be related to the change in seasons and the decrease in sunlight. The reduced sunlight may cause a drop in certain brain chemicals that affect mood, or it may disrupt the body's natural circadian rhythms. There are several components that often contribute to the winter-time blues and SAD.
Negative Thoughts and Feelings
Stress and a strong negativity bias can be risk factors for developing depression of any kind, including SAD or feeling exhausted or down during the winter time.
Melatonin in Excess
Melatonin is a chemical that your body produces naturally with circadian rhythms to help you fall asleep or feel tired when it is dark out. However, more dark hours and less sunlight during the day can cause our bodies to produce more melatonin, resulting in a feeling of tiredness or exhaustion throughout the day.
Many forms of depression can be attributed in part to neurotransmitter imbalances. Serotonin, often known as our "happy" neurotransmitter, can be affected by sunlight. Decreased sunlight or exposure to sunlight in the wintertime can negatively affect serotonin production and cause depression.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D levels directly correlate to Serotonin levels in the body. As exposure to sunlight helps your body to produce Vitamin D, less sunlight means less Vitamin D unless there is a proper amount of Vitamin D in your diet or in supplement form.
Confused Circadian Rhythms
Circadian rhythms are one of our biological rhythms that run on a 24-hour cycle and are strongly affected by natural light. When light exposure and daylight decreases, it can throw our circadian rhythms out of wack as we continue to work and stay awake into the dark hours.
Who is at Risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder (sad)?
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that typically occurs during the fall and winter months when there is less natural sunlight. Although sad is more common in northern climates, it can affect people in any location.
There are several factors that may increase your risk of developing seasonal affective disorder, including:
• A family history of depression or sad
• Having another type of depression, such as bipolar disorder
• Having a history of premenstrual dysphoric disorder
• Having a history of postpartum depression
• Having a job that requires you to work night shifts
• Having another medical condition, such as diabetes
If you are experiencing strong symptoms of depression and think it may in part be attributable to SAD you can see your doctor and receive a seasonal affective disorder test. Some doctors may prescribe antidepressant medication or other medications and may encourage you to talk to a professional mental health care provider to receive a diagnosis. It's important that you get several opinions and feel confident in your choice before you commit to taking medications that chemically alter your mental health and it can be helpful to involve loved ones in your journey for support.
Can I prevent seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?
While experts are still hesitant to attribute seasonal affective disorder or seasonal depression to any one lifestyle or environmental factor, there are daily actions that have been proven to aid in the prevention of SAD and the wintertime blues. The prevention of seasonal depression depends largely on what the individual in question is comfortable with. There are several fantastic seasonal affective disorder self-care options that you can use to start feeling better!
5 Tips for Managing Seasonal Depression
1. Enjoy 10-minute Daily Nature Sessions
As you've read, a key component of the wintertime blues and seasonal depression is a lack of exposure to natural sunlight. Often warm weather and blue skies tempt us outside during the spring and summer, allowing our bodies to soak up the sunlight and garner all the positive results for our biological rhythms, and fulfill our chemical and hormonal needs.
Challenge yourself to get outside for at least ten minutes no matter the weather every day to help your body to sync with the rhythms of nature, to calm your nervous system, and to soak up the sunlight. Remember, even if the skies are grey the sun is still out there, just behind some clouds!
2. Invest in a Light Box
Light therapy is one of the most common treatments for SAD. It involves sitting in front of a light box for 30 minutes a day. The light box gives off bright light that mimics natural sunlight. This type of light is thought to affect chemicals in the brain that control mood.
If you’re interested in trying light therapy, ask your doctor if it’s right for you. You can also buy a light box online or at a store. Be sure to buy one that emits 10,000 lux of light.
3. Get House Plants
New studies are showing that caring for house plants can be positively therapeutic and can be deeply healing for our nervous systems and biological clocks. There are many positive benefits of having live plants in the home, but many folks are beginning to find plants are an excellent aid in managing seasonal depression. While the plants outside might go bare and dormant, house plants inside will help surround you with green and provide the growth, humidity, and clean air that feels so uplifting in warmer seasons.
4. Eat a Well-Balanced Diet and Move Your Body
Eating a well-balanced diet with lots of Vitamin D rich foods and vegetables can help ensure your body has what it needs to make up for the lost sunlight and abundance of summer produce. Fish, egg yolks, mushrooms, oats and fortified orange juice and plant milks are great sources of vitamin D. If you are looking for meal ideas check out my free e-book with a weeks worth of vitamin D rich recipes!
Moving your body daily will help you to produce endorphins that will uplift your mood and encourage circulation, heart health and mental clarity.
5. Be Social
It can be easy to curl up on the couch and let Netflix drain away your winter hours, but spending time with loved ones who make you feel happy and seen is a statistically proven way to regulate stress and produce more happy hormones and neurotransmitters like dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin! Challenge yourself to do something socially fulfilling every week and give a loved one a hug or kiss to cultivate a sense of safety and happiness.