Seasonal Affective Disorder: Advice for the “Winter Blues”

By Sydney Shaw |

The days are getting shorter. Use these tips to be ready for any mood shift that comes in with the cold.

Seasonal Affective Disorder: Advice for the Winter Blues

Daylight isn’t the only thing that’s in shorter supply these days. For many, sunny dispositions can also slide at this time of year.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that occurs in a seasonal pattern, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). An estimated 10 million Americans experience SAD, according to a report in Psychology Today. Another 10 to 20 percent are believed to be dealing with mild SAD.

For most people with SAD, symptoms last about five months. They generally crop up in the fall, worsen in the winter, and subside in the spring, according to Mayo Clinic. (Hence, the “winter blues” label.) SAD can also occur in the summertime, but it is less common, the NIMH reports.

While you can’t control the changing seasons, there are simple strategies that can help make the transition a little easier. Follow this advice for the dark days ahead.

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How Seasons Affect Mood

The specific cause of SAD is not yet known. But the trigger appears to be a shortage of sunlight. It turns out that light (or lack thereof) is related to a few key systems within your body.

Circadian rhythm. This is your body’s internal clock. When it’s dark outside, your brain tells the body that it’s time to sleep. And when it’s light out, your brain goes into wake mode.

Shorter days means less sunlight, which throws off your circadian rhythm. This could lead to feelings of depression. This may be one reason why SAD numbers are higher in the northern portion of the U.S., compared to places like Florida.

Melatonin levels. The so-called “sleep hormone” is tied to your circadian rhythm. Levels rise in the evening to make you feel sleepy, and dip in the morning to wake you up. The seasonal change in sunlight interferes with the production and release of melatonin, which in turn affects your mood.

Serotonin levels. At the same time, a shortage of sunshine can also trigger a drop in serotonin, which is one of the “happiness” chemicals in your brain, the Mayo Clinic reports.

Vitamin D levels. Your levels of the “sunshine vitamin” can fall if you don’t get enough exposure to sunlight — or don’t eat enough foods that contain this vitamin. Good food sources of vitamin D include salmon, canned tuna, other types of fatty fish, egg yolks, as well as fortified cereals, milk, and dairy products.

Low levels of vitamin D have been found in people with SAD. However, the National Institute of Health notes that it’s not clear whether vitamin D supplementation can help relieve SAD symptoms. Ask your doctor to check your vitamin D levels to find out if you would benefit from taking extra vitamin D.

Recommended reading: Why It’s So Important to Consult Your Doctor Before Taking Supplements

8 Common Symptoms of SAD

It’s hard to be cheery when the weather report is on an endless loop of cloudy days or when snowy roads keep you from your favorite SilverSneakers class, but it’s important to not confuse a case of the winter blahs with SAD. The two are very different.

SAD symptoms can vary from person to person, but common ones you should discuss with your doctor include:

  • Low energy — or less than usual
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Trouble focusing
  • Loss of interest in activities you previously enjoyed
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of melancholy or sadness

Symptoms may also differ depending on whether your symptoms occur during the winter or summer. For example, while people with winter SAD might become prone to overeating, those with summer SAD may have a poor appetite, according to Mayo Clinic.

Recommended reading: 60-Second Solution: Do You Have SAD?

When to Talk to Your Doctor About SAD

It can often be hard to tell if how you’re feeling is temporary stress, general depression, SAD, or a sign of a different health issue. And SAD and clinical depression have some overlapping symptoms.

A good rule of thumb: If you notice changes in how you’re feeling — physically or emotionally — it’s smart to check in with your doctor. It’s important to seek out professional help, no matter what’s causing your low mood.

How to Get Ahead of SAD Symptoms

When you’re in the thick of your seasonal depression, you might feel like your mood will never improve. But SAD is treatable. Talk with your doctor about some of these strategies.

Seek out the sunshine. This might involve something as simple as remembering to open the blinds in the morning to the more involved act of trimming tree branches that block sunlight from coming into your home. Also, unless a storm’s afoot, aim to get outside for even a few minutes every day. Outside walks — even on a cloudy day — will expose your body to more of those all-important ultraviolet rays.

Stay physically active. Exercise has been shown to boost your mood and relieve stress, which can help minimize SAD symptoms. Look for opportunities to be more physically active throughout your day.

A few ideas:

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Have a consistent sleep schedule. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same times. Don’t oversleep or nap during the day. This can further throw off your circadian rhythm, worsening your symptoms.

Medical Treatments for SAD

SAD is a type of recurring depression that can be serious. If you’re experiencing symptoms and the above lifestyle changes aren’t bringing you any (or enough) relief, your doctor or a mental health professional may recommend one or more of the following:

Light therapy. Also called phototherapy, this is often the first line of defense against SAD. In the first hour of waking up, you’ll sit a few feet away from a light box that mimics natural sunlight for about 30 minutes. This helps boost the chemicals in your brain that affect your mood.

One 2019 study showed that light therapy helps 67 percent of patients with mild SAD and 40 percent of those whose SAD is more severe. The findings were reported in Frontiers of Psychology. Light therapy generally starts working within a few days to a few weeks.

You don’t need a prescription to buy a light box, but it’s a good idea to ask your doctor if they have a model that they recommend.

Talk therapy. This is also called cognitive behavioral therapy. You’ll speak with a mental health professional, like a therapist, to help develop ways to cope with SAD. You can learn to identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors, manage stress, and build healthy behaviors.

Medication. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor might also prescribe an antidepressant. Some people benefit from starting an antidepressant before their SAD symptoms begin each year, according to the Mayo Clinic.

If you’re having thoughts of harming yourself, seek professional help immediately, or let a loved one know. Or call 988 to reach the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, which provides 24/7, free, and confidential support. TTY users can dial 711 then 988 or use your preferred relay service.

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