By Jacqueline L. Scheier, D.O.
As the days grow shorter and darkness seems to descend shortly after lunchtime during the fall and winter months, many people find themselves feeling a little down and depressed. If you’re one of them, you may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression related to the change in seasons. SAD hits many people around the same time each year, starting off with relatively mild symptoms that become more severe as time passes. And if you’re dealing with SAD, you’re not alone – up to 20 percent of adults experience some form of it during the darkest months of the year. SAD is a subset of major depression and shares many of the same symptoms. You may feel depressed most of the day, have lower energy, and lose interest in things you used to love. You may also experience changes in your sleep patterns and appetite, find it difficult to concentrate and may even have frequent thoughts of death or suicide. What makes SAD different from major depression is the timing; it happens at a specific time of year, usually in the fall or winter.
Not Enough Light May Be the Culprit
While the specific causes of SAD are unknown, the lack of light during the winter months is the most likely cause. When it’s dark outside for a good portion of your waking hours, your body’s natural biological clock, called the circadian rhythm, may be disrupted. This leads to changes in your sleep cycle and makes you feel tired and sluggish, which increases feelings of depression. Reduced sunlight can also cause your serotonin and melatonin levels to drop, which are important for regulating your mood. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter – a chemical in your brain – that affects mood, social behavior, appetite, sleep and memory. Melatonin is a hormone made by your brain to regulate sleep and wake cycles. When either of these are out of balance, you may feel depressed. SAD can affect anyone, but you’re more likely to experience it if you are young, female, have a history of depression, or have a family member with a history of SAD. Because the amount of light available during the winter is associated with SAD, people who live farther from the equator are also more likely to suffer.
5 Natural Ways to Overcome SAD
If you’re suffering from seasonal affective disorder, here a few things you can try to help alleviate your symptoms:
- Exercise: It can be tough to get moving if you’re feeling down, but exercise will be a big help in alleviating your symptoms. It gives you a shot of endorphins and can help fight off weight gain commonly associated with SAD.
- Get outside: Taking part in activities outside will provide some of the natural light your body and brain crave during the long winter months – just be sure to bundle up when the temperatures dip.
- Use a light therapy box: When you can’t get outside, a light therapy box can help. These small devices shine a light on your face to simulate sunlight. Make sure your device is made to treat SAD, provides the recommended light intensity of 10,000 lux and emits no damaging UV light.
- Try a dawn simulator: Dawn simulators are alarm clocks that wake you by mimicking the rising of the sun – gradually getting brighter. Research has shown that dawn simulators are nearly as effective as light therapy boxes in treating SAD.
- Stick to a schedule: Keep a regular sleeping and eating schedule during the winter months. This will help to maintain the proper balance of hormones and neurotransmitters in your body.
There are many things you can do to help overcome the “winter blues” naturally, but don’t rule out antidepressant medication or psychotherapy as an option if your doctor thinks it may help. Seasonal affective disorder can have a significant impact on your quality of life if left untreated.
About the Author
Specializing in family medicine, Dr. Scheier strives to work with patients in obtaining their short-term and long-term health goals. She works to gain their trust through open and honest conversation in assisting them to achieve these goals. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Scheier, please call 484-446-3660.