What is seasonal affective disorder
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression related to the seasons. It is also called “winter depression” as it typically starts around fall and continues through winter. In most cases, symptoms of SAD go away as the days grow longer and sunnier.
It typically occurs in individuals age 18 to 30 years old, and is more common in women.
While health care professionals are not 100% sure of the cause, it is believed that a vitamin D deficiency and inadequate sunlight keeps the hypothalamus from working properly. This leads to a disruption in our circadian rhythm (AKA our sleep/wake cycle), which can affect our levels of melatonin and serotonin.
In those with SAD, melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy, is elevated, leading to lethargy. On the other hand, serotonin, a hormone that affects our mood and appetite is decreased. Inadequate production of serotonin is linked to depression.
With inadequate sunlight being a risk factor, location is also important to note. The shortened hours of daylight in the northern states make SAD more common in those who live far north.
- decrease in energy
- trouble sleeping
- depressive feelings
- loss of sex drive
- appetite changes
- weight gain
Seasonal affective disorder vs depression
Because the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder overlap with those of “traditional” depression, making a diagnosis can be difficult. The telltale sign is when you begin experiencing the depressive feelings — they will typically start in September, peak mid-winter, and start to ease away in March or April.
treating sad with holistic remedies
- Get a Light Box. If you live in an area where sunlight is limited for a significant portion of the year, a light box might be a good investment. It is currently the best treatment available for SAD, as 60-80% of patients see improvements in their symptoms. In fact, this study found a modest improvement of SAD depression symptoms after only a single light session!
The type of light used is 20 times brighter than a normal indoor light. It is recommended to sit 3 to 4 feet away from the light for 15 to 50 minutes each morning. Folks often see results in two to four days, though it may take a full two weeks to reach full benefits. Using the light consistently throughout the whole winter season will help you feel your best, as symptoms can return quickly after stopping light therapy.
- Add a Vitamin D Supplement. Those who experience symptoms of SAD often have low levels of vitamin D. Get your vitamin D levels checked at least yearly by your primary care provider to ensure your levels stay in the optimal range (refer to this post for more info on vitamin D).
- Exercise. Yes, yes I know it’s cold outside. And not feeling your best will make this even harder. But exercise increases our “feel good” hormones, called endorphins! Research has indicated that excising as little as 20 minutes per day, 3 times per week at a moderate intensity is sufficient to significantly reduce symptoms of depression. Grabbing an accountability partner will help you stay motivated and get out of bed on those difficult days!
- Get Outside When Possible. When there is a bit of sunshine during the cold, dark months, take advantage of it! Open your curtains and blinds during the day, or bundle up and take a walk outside during your lunch break. Natural sunlight is extremely important for our well-being and circadian rhythm.
- Eat a Healthy Diet. Feeling stressed and depressed often leaves us craving sweets and other unhealthy carbs, leaving us feeling even worse than before. Instead, focus on a brain-boosting diet full of bright fruits, dark leafy greens, lean protein, and fish. When you do eat carbohydrates, try to choose whole grain sources, which are higher in fiber and nutrition overall compared to their “white” counterparts (i.e. white bread, white rice, regular pasta, etc).
- Reach Out For Help. Any type of depression can feel extremely isolating. Establishing a strong support system with friends and family can help ease the burden. Keep in touch with your doctor, and consider asking if cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) could be right for you. This is a type of psychotherapy that helps individuals change unhealthy ways of thinking and behaving, and helps them reframe their focus on positive solutions.
If you suspect you have or are at risk for seasonal affective disorder, please make sure you contact your primary care provider. And if you or someone you know ever feels like harming themselves, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255).
This past year has been tough — let’s watch out for each other.