It’s to be expected that we all feel more cheerful during the summer months when the weather is nice, rather than during the grey and dreary months of winter. But can the seasons really affect our mood and behavior?
The science says Yes.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
If you’ve noticed the following symptoms appearing during late fall or early winter but going away in the spring or summer, you might have a condition called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD for short.
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having low energy
- Having problems with sleeping
- Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
SAD can also affect your self-esteem. When you feel tired and sad, you might find yourself less motivated to do well in school or hang out with friends. This can lead to you feeling disappointed, isolated, and lonely—especially if you don’t realize that seasonal depression is causing negative changes in energy, mood, and motivation.
Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
One of the main culprits behind SAD is reduced daylight hours.
Current theories about what causes SAD focus on the role that sunlight might play in the brain's production of key chemicals.
Melatonin is often called the “sleep hormone.” Melatonin regulation is correlated with daylight exposure. That means your body produces more melatonin when it's dark—like during winter, when days are shorter. This increased production of melatonin can cause a person to feel sleepy and lethargic.
With serotonin, it's the opposite: serotonin production goes up when a person is exposed to sunlight, so it's likely that you’ll have lower levels of serotonin during shorter winter days. With less sunshine, you also get less of the mood-boosting benefits of increased serotonin production.
Risk Factors of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
If you live in an area that has plenty of sunny days around the year, you’re less likely to experience the winter blues. One study found that 1 percent of Florida’s population experiences SAD, as compared to 9 percent of Alaska’s population.
And just as traveling across the globe can interfere with your body’s circadian rhythm, so too can lack of sunshine affect your body’s natural rhythms. Our internal body clock is basically a complex dance of chemicals that influence things like your mood, appetite, and energy levels. When changes in external light cues lead to imbalances in serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters, you may start feeling symptoms like fatigue and irritability.
How to Ease Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Symptoms
Keep a regular sleep schedule.
People with SAD tend to have a harder time getting out of bed in the morning because it’s dark outside. And because winter days are shorter and darker, your body may produce melatonin differently. This causes a disruption in your natural sleep cycle, which makes your symptoms worse.
Don’t take long naps, and keep regular sleeping and waking times—yes, even on the weekends—to minimize hormonal fluctuations.
Practice good sleep hygiene.
Good sleep habits can help you get a better night’s rest. Follow these guidelines to improve your sleep health:
- Be consistent. Go to bed at the same time every night, and get up at the same time each morning. (Yes, even on the weekends.)
- Wind down with a relaxing routine. Let your body know it’s time for bed by keeping a nighttime routine. In the hour before bed, take a warm shower or bath, curl up with a good book, or write about your day in your journal.
- Create a good sleep environment. Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and cool. You can use blackout shades, a sleeping mask, foam ear plugs, and a fan.
- Keep electronics out of bed. Blue light disrupts our sleep-wake cycles, so keep your phone and laptop away from your bed. Better yet, keep them outside of your bedroom. You can use an alarm clock to wake up in the morning.
It’s likely that you’ll start feeling better after doing just 10 or 15 minutes of exercise. Warm up with a gentle stretching session or yoga, then move into strength training, jogging, or dancing. Exercising with a friend can also help—not only does it provide you with motivation to keep working out, the social interaction can help combat SAD symptoms.
Get closer to nature.
You can start by opening your blinds, trimming tree branches that block sunlight, or simply sitting closer to bright windows while you’re at home. Go outside for a walk in the fresh air, even on cold or cloudy days.
Try light therapy.
Current research points to the effectiveness of light therapy, which involves using an artificial light source to help regulate our natural circadian rhythm.
One option is using a dawn simulator. This is an alarm clock that mimics the sunrise with a light that gets progressively brighter in the hour before your alarm goes off.
Another option is a light therapy lamp. Look for a lamp with at least 10,000 Lux. Because of its brightness—a light therapy lamp is about 20 times brighter than ordinary indoor light—you should be careful not to stare directly into the light. Simply turn it on for the first 30 to 45 minutes you’re awake, first thing after waking up.
Explore talk therapy.
You can find relief for your winter blues by talking to a mental health professional. In treating SAD, cognitive behavioral therapy is just about as effective as light therapy. During your sessions, your therapist will teach you how to recognize negative thinking patterns, as well as practical ways to manage your stress more effectively.
If your symptoms persist or become worse, please contact your primary doctor and talk to them about your concerns. They can help create a plan to make the long winter months a little bit brighter for you.
Ask your doctor about medication options.
Your doctor may also prescribe medications. Antidepressant medications help to regulate the balance of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain that affect mood and energy. Medications need to be prescribed and monitored by a doctor. If your doctor prescribes medication for SAD or another form of depression, be sure to let him or her know about any other medications or remedies you may be taking, including over-the-counter or herbal medicines. These can interfere with prescription medications.
Depression in any form can be serious. If you think you have symptoms of any type of depression, talk to someone who can help you get treatment.