As the clocks fall back, darkness descends on us earlier, temperatures drop, and the year’s end looms in the near future, we can almost feel winter‘s full effect, even when it’s technically still autumn. While there is much to love about this time of year—holidays, bountiful fall harvests, and warming seasonal spiced drinks, to name a few of my favorites—it’s also a season when a lot of people struggle.
One reason for this time of year feeling like a downer? Mild wintertime blues can affect about 14% of American adults, while full-blown seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, affects roughly 6%. Though some people with SAD can experience it in the summer months, it’s much more common in winter, thanks to factors like less sunshine exposure, shorter days, and colder weather. Let’s take a look at the symptoms of SAD—and how you can help alleviate them.Though some people with SAD can experience symptoms in summer months, it’s much more common in winter, thanks to factors like less sunshine exposure, shorter days, and colder weather. Click To Tweet
Common Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), SAD symptoms can last about 4 to 5 months out of the year. And, this disorder is more common in people who have other mental health conditions, such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and ADHD/ADD, as well as eating, anxiety, or panic disorders. SAD and depression have many of the same symptoms, including:
- persistent sadness
- negative moods
- loss of interest in pleasurable activities
- difficulty concentrating
- insomnia or sleeping too much
- increasedor diminished appetite
- weight gain or loss
- changesin energy levels, such as feeling agitated—or conversely—feeling sluggish or fatigued
The main difference between SAD and other depressive disorders is that people who have SAD experience a noticeable onset of symptoms at a particular time of year—usually in late autumn or winter—that lift when the season changes again and the days get longer.
If you experience SAD, you may go into “hibernation mode” in the winter, leading to a feeling of lethargy or irritability in the morning; trouble waking up; or feeling like you haven’t gotten a full night’s sleep, even when you’ve slept longer than usual. Concentration also takes a downturn, and consuming larger amounts of energy-sapping, high-glycemic foods like sweets and refined carbs only aggravates the issue. In some cases, you might not feel like being around your friends and family, which can lead to isolation, social withdrawal, and possible relationship conflicts.
How SAD Affects the Body
Behind all these possible symptoms, SAD is associated with several changes in the brain and body. For example, less sunlight can disrupt the pineal gland, which plays a vital role in hormone regulation—including melatonin (which helps the body set its circadian rhythm). One scientific overview indicated that people with SAD may produce abnormally high levels of melatonin—a change that leads to having less energy and feeling drowsy. Thus, SAD is more commonly found in areas where sunlight is greatly reduced in winter months, such as the northern parts of the U.S. People with SAD who travel to a sunnier location can experience improvement in their symptoms.
Another study found that people with SAD may have difficulty regulating serotonin, which is a “feel-good” neurotransmitter that’s linked to mood. This is due to seasonal fluctuations in SERT, a protein that’s involved with transporting serotonin. Elevated SERT levels (as much as 5% or more among SAD sufferers in winter months) create lower serotonin activity, potentially leading to depressive symptoms.
Finally, due to less sunshine in the winter, those with SAD may be suffering from a vitamin D deficiency, which has been linked to mental health conditions like depression and bipolar disorder. Since vitamin D also plays a role in serotonin activity, disruption of this neurotransmitter might impact mood.
4 Ways to Cope With SAD Symptoms
People who experience wintertime SAD don’t simply have to accept their fate until springtime. In fact, there are a variety of natural therapies that can be helpful in reducing symptoms. Try a combination of the following to see what works best for you:
1. Vitamin D supplementation. Visit your doctor to check your vitamin D levels. If they’re out of whack and you’ve been experiencing SAD symptoms, a nutritional supplement might help.
2. Psychotherapy. According to the NIMH, cognitive behavioral therapy has been adapted for people with SAD (called CBT-SAD). It focuses on replacing negative thoughts related to the winter season (i.e. associations with the darkness of winter) with more positive thoughts. This approach also uses a process called behavioral activation, which helps patients fight back against lethargy and disinterest by scheduling pleasant, engaging indoor or outdoor activities for the winter season. One benefit of therapy is that it can help patients learn how to retrain their thoughts all year round. Those with SAD are especially prone to automatic negative thoughts (ANTs), so it’s a great idea to learn how to challenge and push back against those mood-killers.
3. Bright light therapy. When exposed to full-spectrum light (which offers the same color spectrum as natural sunlight) that is 10,000 lux or higher for 20 to 30 minutes in the morning, those with SAD often find a reduction in their symptoms. Research has shown that using bright light therapy is effective in treating SAD—and it’s been used as a remedy since the 1980s. According to the NIMH, you don’t need to worry about dangerous UV exposure from these lights because they filter out the UV rays. However, you should check with your doctor if you’re taking medications or have an eye disease that makes you sunlight-sensitive.
4. Balanced diet. Loading up your plate with “happy foods” is even more important when you’re struggling with SAD symptoms. While cravings may strike for nutritionally empty junk food, it’s much better for you to choose foods that boost your mood and provide a natural burst of energy.
Keep in mind that while some people naturally feel down during or after the holiday season, SAD is more likely to escalate throughout the holidays and continue well after the new year, all the way until longer days arrive with the spring and summer seasons. Ultimately, if SAD is sapping your energy or disrupting your daily life, try some of the strategies above or talk to your doctor about other possible treatments. There’s no need to stay stuck in SAD all season long!
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