Cold weather isn’t the only thing that rolls in at wintertime. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also called seasonal depression, is depression that emerges typically during the fall and winter months when you’re less exposed to sunlight. The “winter blues” can give you low energy levels, sleeping problems, depression, trouble concentrating and appetite changes, mostly because your biological clock gets thrown out of whack.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
SAD can cause a combination of various physical and psychological symptoms. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of symptoms or signs that could indicate SAD:
- Low energy
- Difficulty sleeping
- Lack of interest in doing things previously enjoyed
- Trouble concentrating
- Changes in appetite
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder
There are several potential causes of SAD, most involving bio-rhythmical shifts accompanying the winter season. Specifically, here are what experts suspect to be the major causes of SAD:
- Vitamin D deficiency from lack of sunlight exposure. Your brain depends on sunlight to help regulate its sleep-wake rhythm with vitamin D, and limited exposure to sunshine in the fall and winter months can result in vitamin D deficiency.
- Reduced serotonin production due to less sun exposure. Serotonin is a feel-good “happiness” hormone known as a natural defense against depression. Less serotonin production in the overcast winter months may make you more vulnerable to depression.
- Depression resulting from weight gain and/or a more sedentary lifestyle during the cold winter months. Especially if your diet becomes unhealthy during the holiday season, you’re making yourself more susceptible to mood swings and mood disorders like depression.
Every case of SAD is unique, and can only be truly diagnosed by a licensed professional. If you have SAD, it could be from a combination of the above causes, or from a different cause not mentioned. To get to the root of your own symptoms, be seen by a qualified expert, such as a doctor, therapist or psychologist.
Therapies that Help Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder
Your brain depends on sunlight to help regulate its sleep-wake rhythm, and limited exposure to sunshine in the fall and winter months can disrupt this cycle. Thankfully, there are ways to help regulate your internal clock when your exposure to sunshine is curtailed, and things you should do to help you stay healthy throughout the winter months. Here are 8 things you need for a better winter season:
- Light Therapy Box
A light therapy box emits light at a wavelength similar to that of the sun. In effect, you feel like the sun’s rays are hitting you on a tropical beach. As if that weren’t enough to boost your mood, it produces the same brain-boosting benefits as sunlight by promoting increased production of serotonin–the “happiness” hormone. Using a light therapy box just 30 minutes a day is shown to significantly reduce symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, such as insomnia and depression, by regulating your body clock and mood.
- Dawn Simulator
A dawn simulator has the same benefits as a light therapy box, except it’s used as an alarm clock to wake you up in a way that simulates the sunrise. The light slowly increases in intensity to wake you up with natural sunlight instead of a dreaded beeping sound.
- Essential Oils
Aromatherapy with essential oils is proven in studies to help fight depression and regulate the hormones that affect sleep and appetite. You can use an essential oil diffuser with oils like sweet orange oil, lemongrass oil or peppermint oil for an instant mood boost that helps you stay alert but relaxed throughout the day.
- Vitamin D Supplements
Vitamin D, the “sunshine hormone” involved in mood regulation and other important functions, is synthesized when sunlight touches the skin. If you’re mostly indoors or covered up when you go out during cold winter months, it’s easy to become vitamin D deficient. Studies have linked this deficiency to depression. Fortunately, vitamin D supplementation is found to reduce symptoms in people living with various types of depression.
- 5-HTP Supplements
5-HTP, an amino acid, converts directly into the brain’s “happiness hormone,” called serotonin. Reduced sunlight exposure lowers serotonin levels, which can lead to depression. Studies show 5-HTP works the same way as antidepressant drugs, by boosting serotonin levels. Serotonin is a precursor to the “sleep hormone,” melatonin, which regulates your sleep cycle and mood. If you struggle with insomnia in the winter months, 5-HTP supplements can boost your melatonin levels and help you get the sleep you need.
- Omega-3 Fish Oil Supplements
Omega-3 fatty acids also affect serotonin levels. Without enough omega-3s in your diet, it’s easy to become deficient and experience decreased levels of serotonin. Psychiatric research has found that omega-3 fish oil supplementation reduced symptoms in people with depression. If you choose to supplement with omega-3 to combat seasonal depression, opt for animal-based sources, such as fish oil, cod liver oil, salmon liver oil or krill oil. These provide DHA–a brain-nourishing omega-3 fat responsible for impulse control and mood regulation. DHA is not found in plant-based sources of omega-3s, such as flaxseeds or chia seeds.
- Home Workout Equipment
Do you fall off the wagon at winter time? Does going to the gym take a dive on your list of priorities because of the holidays, or is it because you let SAD get the best of you? (Both?) Regardless, exercise is critical for mood regulation, so don’t let the weather (or any other excuses) stop you. Invest in some home equipment like a stationary bike or a yoga mat so you can stay active without having to leave your home. Try to get 30 minutes of exercise at least 5 days a week to uplift your mood and stay fit throughout the winter.
If wintertime seems to change how you feel–and not for the better–every year, then you may have seasonal affective disorder. If you suspect it’s the case, you should talk with a therapist or other licensed professional about your symptoms to determine the best treatment. Hopefully, these 7 tips for getting through the winter can serve as “mood hacks” to help you stay balanced.