For some, the darkness that accompanies the fall and winter months may contribute to a condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Approximately 4-6% of US residents suffer from SAD, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, and as many as 20% may have a mild form that begins when days get shorter and darker.
SAD is a disorder that comes and goes with the seasons and has been directly linked to living farther from the equator—the less light you have in the fall and winter months, the more likely you may be diagnosed with SAD. While seasonal depression may occur in the spring and summer months, it is much less common than winter episodes.
Identifying symptoms of seasonal depression
In most cases, symptoms of SAD gradually onset during late fall and early winter and then improve during the sunnier days of spring and on into summer. SAD is frequently referred to as the “winter blues” and its most dominant symptom is feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day. Other general winter pattern SAD symptoms include:
- Lack of energy, feeling sluggish and tired
- Changes in sleep patterns, typically over sleeping or sleeping too much
- Appetite changes, overeating, and craving foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal, feel like “hibernating”
Causes of seasonal depression
While the exact cause of SAD is unknown, there are many factors believed to contribute to the disorder. Geographic location impacts the likelihood of being diagnosed with SAD. For example, 1% of those who live in Florida and 9% of those who live in New England or Alaska suffer from SAD.
Brain chemistry is another factor to consider. Reduced exposure to sunlight during the winter months can cause a drop in serotonin levels. Serotonin is a brain chemical that affects mood. Natural production of Melatonin, a brain chemical linked to sleep patterns and mood, may increase due to limited sunlight during the winter months. Both serotonin and melatonin have been linked to SAD.
Additionally, your own biological clock (or circadian rhythm) may play a role in SAD. The decrease in sunlight during the fall and winter months may interrupt your body’s internal clock, in turn leading to feelings of depression.
Ways to alleviate your symptoms
The most common way to treat SAD is with a light therapy box at home. Light therapy boxes emit a light brighter than standard bulbs and the light mimics the wavelengths of sunlight. Light boxes are available for purchase at many retailers and online. A typical treatment consists of 30 minutes per day and has been found to stimulate your body’s biological clock and suppress its natural production of melatonin.
Dawn simulators may be helpful for those suffering from SAD, particularly those suffering from oversleeping or a desire to sleep excessively. Like an alarm clock, dawn simulators wake you up in the morning, but instead of loud noises to rouse you, it uses a light simulating the sun that slowly increases in brightness, gradually waking you up. Researchers found that dawn simulators were as effective as light therapy for people with mild SAD, according to a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
You may want to consider adding multiple treatment methods to your routine. Aromatherapy has been shown to impact the areas of the brain that control appetite, mood, and sleep. Add a few drops of essential oil to your nighttime bath. One recent study found that poplar tree oil was helpful for depressive disorders. Exercise can assist with reducing symptoms of SAD and other depressive disorders. If it’s too chilly to exercise outside, consider working out near a window to take advantage of any sunlight that may be available. Take a Vitamin D supplement, as low levels of the vitamin can contribute to SAD, as found in multiple 2014 studies.
First and foremost you should talk to your doctor, as seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression. Talking to you doctor will determine if you have SAD or another form of depression and will help establish a treatment routine that best suits your needs. You may find that the above remedies for SAD may not prove helpful at alleviating your symptoms. If that is the case, your doctor may determine that prescription antidepressants could help you.
Visiting your health care practitioner
When preparing for your visit to a health care practitioner, make a list of questions to ask them and keep a record of your specific symptoms and depression patterns. Consider asking the following questions:
- Are my symptoms caused by SAD or could it be something else?
- Should I consider seeing a mental health provider?
- Are there any steps I can take to improve my mood?
- What are the best treatment options for me?
At Northwest Primary Care, your health and well-being are important to us. If you suspect you’re suffering from SAD or another depressive disorder, we can help with treatment and resources.