Seasonal Affective Disorder: Why You May Not Just Be Feeling the Winter Blues

The clocks have turned back. The sun is setting before we've even left the office. And those long, dog days of summer seem a world away. While the changing leaves and upcoming holidays can be a bright upside, we can all agree there is a certain melancholy around this time of year. However, you may notice that how your feeling goes deeper than those "winter blues." If this time of year seems to always radically disrupt your life, you may be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is a form of depression linked to the changing of the seasons. It is important to note that while 10-20% of adults report experiencing a degree of "winter blues," only around 5% of people are formally diagnosed with SAD by a medical provider based on the DSM-5 criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Seasonal Affective Disorder often begins in early adulthood, with many noticing the onset between ages 18 and 30. The majority of people experiencing SAD notice symptoms rolling in throughout the fall and intensifying in the winter. However, a small percentage of people experience the opposite schedule, where their symptoms start in the spring, peak in the winter, and begin to taper off in the fall. While the two opposing schedules share common symptoms, they each have unique characteristics that we will explore below.

What Causes SAD?

The exact cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder is still largely unknown. Researchers are keen to believe that, much like other forms of depression, this condition results from a biochemical imbalance in your brain.

Another contributing factor is the decrease in our exposure to sunlight. Sunlight jumpstarts our bodies' production of Vitamin D. Vitamin D plays a key role in our serotonin production. Our serotonin, or "happy hormone," levels can drastically drop without adequate vitamin D levels. Furthermore, we rely on natural light to keep our circadian rhythm in line. Our circadian rhythm is our body's internal clock. It helps regulate hormones that tell us when we should be tired, hungry, or energized. However, without proper sunlight, our clocks can get thrown off. As a result, our body starts producing the wrong hormones at the wrong time, causing us to feel out of step with the day. Many people experiencing SAD are often under-producing serotonin and over-producing melatonin, leaving them in a fog.

While the direct cause of SAD is still being investigated, some groups are at higher risk than others. SAD affects women more frequently than men. Also, you may be more prone to SAD if you or a family member have a history of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Finally, since sunlight is a significant factor in SAD, it is not surprising that the further and further you get from the equator, the more prevalent SAD becomes due to the diminishing sunlight.  

Signs & Symptoms of SAD

Seasonal Affective Disorder shares many symptoms with general depression, so it is crucial you stay aware of when and how often you are experiencing any of the following signs:

  • Feeling depressed for most, if not all of the day
  • Lack of energy
  • Loss of motivation and interest
  • Changes in sleep patterns - Insomnia or oversleeping
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Change in appetite
  • Social withdrawal
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating, and
  • Suicidal ideation

As we discussed before, Seasonal Affective Disorder can manifest differently during different times of the year. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in the colder months, SAD is marked by overeating, especially carbs, oversleeping, weight gain, and a lack of socialization. Conversely, you may experience insomnia, lack of appetite, restlessness, and being more prone to violent outbursts in the summer months. These differences are why it is critical to closely monitor your symptoms and their schedules so you can get the proper help for your exact experience.

Natural Remedies for Seasonal Affective Disorder

The good news is you do not have to grin and bear it until the snow melts. There is a slew of highly effective treatments that can give you a boost back when SAD has you down. Natural remedies work with your body to overcome the imbalances causing SAD rather than just masking the symptoms that keep you from participating in your everyday life.

  • CBD: As we learned earlier, those with preexisting mental health issues are at a higher risk of developing Seasonal Affective Disorder than those without. A study from the Journal of Clinical Medicine Research reinforced how CBD treats underlying anxiety that can be contributing to depression. CBD can also help with feelings of restlessness and insomnia. Seasonal Affective Disorder has a tendency to build on itself and snowball out of control. CBD provides almost instant relief to some of the most bothersome symptoms of SAD while also breaking its dangerous cycle. The best part is CBD comes in endless forms, from oils to gummies and more, that you can easily find a method that fits seamlessly into your daily routine.
  • Phototherapy: Phototherapy or light therapy mimics exposure to sunlight by utilizing an ultra-bright lamp that filters out harmful UV rays. Users will sit in front of their phototherapy lamps for the first 20 to 45 minutes of each day. This sunshine substitute can boost your serotonin levels and help regulate your circadian rhythm.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy that teaches people how to manage challenging situations. By working with a licensed professional, you help change your destructive thought patterns, learn healthy ways to cope, and manage your stress. There is also a specific sector of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for combating SAD. In CBT-SAD, you will use behavioral activation to identify and schedule enjoyable activities. Some of us naturally shy away from therapy as it can push us out of our comfort zone. However, therapy is an excellent option that puts you in skilled hands that will keep you accountable as you navigate this trying time.
  • Vitamin D Supplements: We discussed the vital role vitamin D plays in our serotonin production and the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Did you know people below 30 degrees south of the equator and above 33 degrees north of the equator don't synthesize Vitamin D in the winter months? Studies show that taking 100,000 IU of Vitamin D daily can boost our serotonin production and make up for the sunshine the season steals from us.
  • Practicing Mindfulness: Activities such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, and journaling all grant you space to relax your mind, relieve stress, and recenter your focus. Taking time to recharge can be one of the most powerful weapons against mental health issues.
  • Change Up Your Scenery: Revitalize your living space by bringing in as much natural sunlight as possible. If you have the resources, try to take a trip somewhere sunny and warm for a quick but effective restart to your system.
  • Exercise: It can be hard to stick to a routine or even find the motivation to work out in the throws of Seasonal Affective Disorder. However, exercise has boatloads of benefits for your mental health. Add in a daily workout, even if it is just a walk. Exercising, especially outside, can help regulate your circadian rhythm, improve your mood, relieve stress – all of which are contributing factors to SAD.

Frankly, this time of year is hard. If you find yourself struggling, know there are resources out there for you. Depression, including Seasonal Affective Disorder, tricks your brain into thinking you are in the fight alone. If you take a breath and reach out your hand, you may be amazed at how close by help truly is.