Seasonal Affective Disorder (often known as SAD) impacts 10 million Americans each year.
The cold temperatures, long nights, and decrease in social activity of winter often bring on feelings of intense anxiety or depression.
For those who suffer from SAD, the last few years may have been particularly difficult, as the pandemic has led to even more isolation.
Having a better understanding of what causes SAD is the first step towards alleviating the symptoms.
What causes SAD?
While SAD is often seen as a winter illness, the truth is that people afflicted by it can have year-round symptoms. What distinguishes SAD from other mental illnesses is the fact that it is linked to seasonal changes.
This means that during the shorter, colder days of winter, people with SAD may suffer from many of the same symptoms as more conventional depression including:
- Sleep issues
- Weight gain
- Less energy
- Trouble concentrating
- Lack of motivation
But, SAD doesn’t only impact mental health in the winter. Sanford Auerbach, a School of Medicine associate professor of neurology and psychiatry and director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Boston Medical Center says that those affected by SAD often have behavior changes in the spring and summer including:
- Less sleep
- High energy
- More active
- Tendency towards hypomanic behavior (a less severe form of mania)
Who is most vulnerable to SAD?
Because SAD is a disorder of mood that is linked to seasonal changes, living in areas with distinct seasons puts you more at risk. For example, in the United State, SAD is more common the farther north you go. In fact, it’s seven times more common in Washington state than in Florida.
Your chances of suffering from SAD are also related to gender and age. SAD is four times more common in women than in men. While there are cases of children and teenagers with SAD, it is rare before the age of 20. Incidents of SAD decrease with age.
What are some ways to lessen the symptoms of SAD?
It’s important not to minimize the impact that SAD can have on people’s life. Even short-term depression can lead to relationship difficulties, unhealthy habits, and loss of work. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to minimize the symptoms of SAD.
One of the best ways to deal with seasonal depression is to plan for it. If you know that in the winter you’re unlikely to reach out to friends or engage in new activities, start creating a routine in the fall before your mental health declines.
Set up weekly coffee dates with a friend, enroll in a class, sign up for a volunteer opportunity. Having activities already scheduled into your routine will make it easier than trying to start from scratch when you’re not feeling your best.
While seeing people while you’re feeling down may be the last thing you want to do, studies show that long periods of isolation can lead to symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If the weather or COVID concerns make in-person socializing difficult, phone calls, texts, or face time sessions can help fulfill the need for human interaction.
Stick to a schedule
Maintaining a regular schedule improves sleep, which can help alleviate symptoms of seasonal depression. Exposing yourself to light at predictable times of day will help your body get into a healthier rhythm.
Overeating and weight gain are also common symptoms of SAD. Keeping to a regular meal and snack schedule throughout the year will make it easier to stick to a healthy diet in the winter.
Get enough Vitamin D
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) states that low levels of vitamin D — caused by low dietary intake of this vitamin or not enough sunlight exposure — are common in people with SAD. You can up your Vitamin D intake during the winter months with increased time outdoors, supplemental pills, and Vitamin D-rich foods.
Some common foods high in Vitamin D are:
- Beef liver (cooked). 3 ounces: 42 IU.
- Cereal, fortified with 10% of the daily value of vitamin D. 0.75 to 1 cup: 40 IU.
- Cod liver oil. 1 tablespoon: 1360 IU.
- Egg yolk. 1 large egg: 41 IU.
- Margarine, fortified. 1 tablespoon: 60 IU.
- Milk, fortified. 1 cup: 115-124 IU.
- Orange juice, fortified. 1 cup: 137 IU.
- Salmon (sockeye, cooked). 3 ounces: 447 IU.
- Sardines (canned in oil, drained). 2 sardines: 46 IU.
- Swiss cheese. 1 ounce: 6 IU.
- Swordfish (cooked). 3 ounces: 566 IU.
- Tuna (canned in water, drained). 3 ounces: 154 IU.
- Yogurt, fortified with 20% of the daily value of vitamin D. 6 ounces: 80 IU.
When you’re feeling down, it can be very difficult to motivate yourself to exercise. But, research shows that physical activity can make a big difference in your mental health.
While the links between depression, anxiety, and exercise aren’t entirely clear, research seems to show that regular exercise may help ease depression and anxiety by:
- Releasing feel-good endorphins, natural cannabis-like brain chemicals (endogenous cannabinoids) and other natural brain chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being
- Taking your mind off worries so you can get away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety
While any exercise is helpful, outdoor exercise is particularly beneficial because of the additional exposure to sunshine and the mental health benefits of nature.
In the winter months, the lack of sunshine affects our circadian rhythms, which is the “internal body clock” that regulates the 24-hour cycle of biological processes in our bodies.
Less sunlight can also result in a drop in serotonin levels and irregularities in melatonin levels, which affect your mood and sleep patterns.
Light therapy is one of the most effective ways to treat SAD. The three most common methods of increased light are additional sunshine, a light box, and a dawn simulator.
Regular sun exposure will help regulate your mood and naturally boost your Vitamin D Levels. While you may be reluctant to go outside when it’s cold, keep in mind that you don’t need to spend excessive time outdoors.
To maintain healthy blood levels, aim to get 10–30 minutes of midday sunlight, several times per week.
A light box (also known as phototherapy box) is a device that gives off light that mimics sunshine. Light from these boxes is significantly brighter than from regular light bulbs and is emitted in different wavelengths.
The Mayo Clinic reports that sitting in front of the light box for about 20-30 minutes a day can lead to chemical changes in your brain that improve your mood and help alleviate the symptoms of SAD. Light boxes are typically most effective when used within the first hour you wake up.
A study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders showed that dawn simulators were as effective as light therapy for people with mild SAD.
Dawn simulators are alarm clocks that mimic sunshine by waking you up with a light that gradually increases in intensity. The most effective simulators use full-spectrum light, which is closest to natural sunlight.
Recent research has shown that small increases in air pollution are linked to significant rises in depression and anxiety.
During the winter, we are more likely to spend time indoors. Since indoor air is typically 2 to 5 times more polluted than outdoor air, keeping your home air free of pollutants can have a significant impact on your mental health.
Air purifiers that use a combination of True HEPA and activated carbon filters are most effective at removing both dangerous fine particulate matter and harmful gases from your home air, both of which can impact your mental health.
aeris purifiers are a good choice because have 3 to 5 times more filtration than other air purifiers.
Consult your doctor
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression and may sometimes require medical intervention. If your symptoms don’t improve or continue to deteriorate it is essential that you consult your doctor.
Some patients may find that seeing a therapist helps lessen their symptoms while others may benefit from prescription antidepressants.
It’s important to remember that Seasonal Affective Disorder is not anyone’s fault. It’s a mental illness that, with the right forms of intervention, can usually be managed. Treating your symptoms will allow you to live a happier, more balanced life throughout the year.