As the seasons change, many people experience more than just a shift in weather. They also suffer from a seasonal form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It is estimated that around 2 million people in the UK are affected by SAD.
Defined as a type of depression displaying a seasonal pattern, SAD goes beyond the common winter blues, resulting in significant changes in mood, energy levels, and everyday function. It’s a mood disorder whose symptoms follow a seasonal pattern.
The good news is several effective treatments for SAD can help you feel better fast. Before you sink into a seasonal slump, learn how light therapy, talk therapy, medication and lifestyle changes can help boost your mood and motivation.
The winter blues don’t have to get you down – discover how to outsmart SAD and stay happy all year round.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. As winter days get shorter and colder, many people start to feel the effects of SAD. The lack of sunlight in fall and winter can cause a drop in serotonin, the mood-regulating neurotransmitter in your brain.
The most common symptoms of SAD include:
- Feeling depressed, sad or irritable
- Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Low energy or fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Weight gain or increased appetite
- Sleeping too much or having trouble sleeping
If these symptoms sound familiar and tend to fade once spring returns, you may suffer from SAD. The good news is several treatments can help.
Common Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Feeling down or unmotivated once the weather turns cold and dreary? You could be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression related to changes in seasons. Some common symptoms of SAD to watch out for include:
- Difficulty waking up in the morning. The lack of sunlight can disrupt your circadian rhythm, making it hard to get out of bed.
- Low energy or increased fatigue. The winter blues can sap your motivation and vitality. Basic tasks seem like monumental efforts.
- Increased appetite and weight gain. Craving high-carb comfort foods is common, often leading to overeating and weight gain during winter.
- Difficulty concentrating. Feeling unfocused, indecisive or forgetful? SAD can impact your cognition and productivity.
- Social withdrawal. Do you have less interest in social activities or spending time with others? SAD can contribute to isolation and reduced social interaction.
- Feeling depressed, hopeless or anxious. The primary symptom is a depressed mood for prolonged periods, especially in the winter. You may feel pessimistic, guilty, or stressed more easily.
The good news is SAD is treatable. Options include light therapy, talk therapy, medication, supplements, and lifestyle changes like exercise. The key is to start treatment as soon as symptoms appear to avoid a prolonged funk and enjoy the season.
With the right treatment plan, you can beat the winter blues and stay emotionally balanced all year long.
Causes and Triggers for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is triggered by a lack of natural light during the fall and winter months. As the days get shorter and darker, several factors can contribute to the ‘winter blues’ or seasonal depression:
Lack of Sunlight
Our circadian rhythms are heavily influenced by exposure to sunlight and darkness. Less sun means our body’s internal clock can get out of sync, affecting mood and sleep-wake cycles. Spending more time indoors also limits bright light exposure needed to keep serotonin levels steady. Serotonin is a mood-regulating neurotransmitter in the brain that gives us feelings of well-being and happiness.
The pineal gland in the brain produces the hormone melatonin, which makes us sleepy. More darkness causes the gland to secrete more melatonin, making you feel drowsy. Excess melatonin can contribute to symptoms of depression like low energy, fatigue, and excessive sleep.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin,” is produced in the skin with exposure to UVB rays from the sun. Limited sun in the fall and winter can lead to a deficiency in vitamin D, which plays an important role in mood regulation and the health of your nervous system.
Supplementing with vitamin D or using light therapy boxes can help.
Drop in Activity Levels
When the temperatures cool down and the days seem shorter, it’s easy to go into hibernation mode. Lack of exercise and physical activity during this time can negatively impact your mood and motivation. Engaging in regular exercise, even just going for walks, releases feel-good hormones such as serotonin and endomorphines that boost your mood and ease depression.
The triggers of SAD are highly personal and complex. Paying attention to natural light, sleep, activity levels, and diet can help identify and manage what specifically impacts your seasonal mood changes.
The good news is there are effective natural and medical treatments for overcoming the winter blues each year.
Lifestyle Changes and Natural Remedies for SAD
A few lifestyle changes and natural remedies can help boost your mood and ease symptoms of SAD.
Get more light
Since lack of natural light contributes to SAD, make an effort to get more exposure to bright light. Open the blinds and curtains during the day to let in as much natural light as possible. Spend time outside during the middle of the day when the sun is brightest. If possible, go for a 30-minute walk outside
Light therapy has been an established treatment for seasonal affective disorder with a winter pattern since the 1980s. The aim of this treatment is to expose individuals with SAD to bright light to compensate for diminished natural sunlight during darker months.
For this treatment, the individual sits in front of a very bright light box (10,000 lux) daily for approximately 30-45 minutes, typically first thing in the morning, from autumn to spring. The light box, which is approximately 20 times brighter than ordinary indoor light, filters out potentially damaging ultraviolet light, rendering this a safe treatment for most.
However, individuals with certain eye diseases or those taking certain medications that increase sensitivity to sunlight may require alternative treatments or need to use light therapy under medical supervision.
Exercise is a natural mood booster. Try to get 30 to 60 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Activities like walking, jogging, yoga, and strength training can help. Exercise releases endorphins that improve your mood and act as natural antidepressants. Even just going for a 30-minute walk can help.
Stay socially connected
Make an effort to spend time with friends and family. Loneliness can worsen SAD symptoms.
Stick to a routine
Keeping a regular schedule of meals, sleep and activities provides structure that combats the lack of it in winter.
Eat a healthy diet
A balanced diet can help support both your physical and mental health. Focus on whole foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Stay hydrated, limit alcohol and caffeine, and avoid excess sugar. Some specific foods that may help boost your mood include:
- Fatty fish high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon and tuna
- Leafy green vegetables
- Turmeric or curcumin supplements (turmeric contains curcumin, which may help reduce depression and improve mood)
- Probiotic foods like yoghurt or kefir to support gut health
- Foods high in vitamin D like egg yolks, fatty fish, and fortified foods
Try relaxation techniques like meditation, deep breathing, massage, or yoga. Spending time with others who support you can also help reduce stress and boost your mood. Engage in hobbies and activities you find meaningful or enjoyable. Getting enough sleep is also important for both mood and stress management. Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to feel well-rested.
Making these lifestyle changes and trying natural remedies can go a long way toward easing the symptoms of SAD and helping you feel better during the winter months. Be patient and consistent, as it can take time for the effects to build up. But you should start to notice more good days and an improved mood and outlook over weeks and months.
Treatment Options for Seasonal Affective Disorder
If lifestyle changes aren’t helping alleviate your symptoms of SAD, it may be time to consider professional treatment options. Talking to a doctor or mental health professional is the first step to getting the help you need.
Antidepressants, especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), have been found effective for reducing symptoms of SAD. Common medications prescribed for SAD include escitalopram (Lexapro), sertraline (Zoloft), fluoxetine (Prozac), and bupropion (Wellbutrin). These medications influence chemicals in the brain that affect mood and stress levels. It can take several weeks of use for the full effects to be felt, so patience and commitment are needed.
Speaking to a psychologist or counsellor who specialises in SAD and depression can be very helpful. Talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) focuses on changing negative thoughts and behaviours. Speaking about your experiences can help uncover the underlying causes of your symptoms and give you strategies to better cope with them. Therapy can be done alone or in group settings.
Food Supplements That Can Help Mitigate SAD Symptoms
While supplements cannot replace professional treatment, some may provide additional benefits for SAD symptoms.
- Omega-3 fatty acids have shown promise in improving mood and energy levels during winter months.
- St. John’s Wort, an herbal supplement, is another option that has been studied for its antidepressant effects. Talk to your doctor before taking any supplements, as some may interact with prescription medications.
If you decide to try supplements, start with a moderate dose and monitor how you feel and any potential side effects. Some other supplements to consider include:
- Vitamin D – Many people have lower vitamin D levels in winter, which can impact mood. A daily dose of a quality vitamin D supplement may help.
- Melatonin – In addition to helping regulate sleep cycles, melatonin appears to have mood-stabilizing properties for some people with SAD.
- Magnesium Glycinate – This type of magnesium has high bioavailability, allowing the body to absorb and use it more efficiently than other types.
For some people, a combination of medication, light therapy, and talk therapy provides the most relief from symptoms. Work closely with your doctor to develop a comprehensive treatment plan tailored to your needs. Be open to trying different options and dosages to find what works best for you.
With the variety of effective treatments now available, seasonal affective disorder is a very manageable condition. Don’t lose hope – there are many resources to help you feel better and get through the darker months.
So there you have some helpful tips and treatments to get you through the long, dark winter months. Don’t suffer in silence or brush off those feelings of low mood and lack of energy as ‘just the winter blues’. Recognise the signs of SAD and take action.
Try light therapy, spend time outside during the day, exercise regularly, stay socially connected, practise self-care and talk to your doctor about medication if needed. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to start feeling better.
Integrating lifestyle changes, professional care, and targeted supplementation can all work together holistically to maximise your progress in overcoming seasonal affective disorder. With patience and consistency, you will find a combination of strategies that help lift your mood through the winter months.