Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) commonly and affectionately known as “the winter blutes” affects as many as 20% of Americans each year. SAD is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, syphoning your energy and making you feel moody, mopey and sometimes just sad.
In most cases, seasonal affective disorder symptoms appear during late fall or early winter and go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. Symptoms may start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses.
Either way, it stems from the same cause: Sensitivity to the lack of sunlight that results from winter’s “shorter” and more overcast days. Lack of sunlight disrupts circadian rhythm, or internal body clock. The degree of this sensitivity to lack of sun largely stems from some combination of other factors — your location, genetics, and individual brain chemistry.
With SAD, the brain is forced to work overtime producing melatonin, the hormone that regulates your body clock and sleep patterns and a hormone that has been linked to depression. That’s why all things considered, the farther north from the equator you live, the greater the risk you’ll have some degree of winter depression.
Take residents in Alaska compared to residents in Florida. Only about 1% of Florida residents have some winter-specific discomfort or depression. Alaskan resident report as high as 9.2% of full fledged Seasonal Affective Disorder. In total, about half of those living in uppermost parts of the U.S. or in southern Canada report seasonal discomfort.
So what does SAD look like? According to the DSM, signs and symptoms of SAD may include:
- 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
Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression, may include:
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Tiredness or low energy
The good news, however, is that the “winter blues” doesn’t have to be toughened out and dealt with. There are steps you can take to motivate and steady your mood throughout the colder winter months. So what can you do to help beat feeling SAD?
Bundle up and spend time outside
The solution is to get as much sunlight as possible. Light enters the eye, which activates a body clock system that is similar to what controls seasonal breeding and hibernation in animals. This system is connected to the brain’s appetite hardwiring, which might explain why you may have more food cravings in winter.
But what about the cold? Standing by the window just doesn’t cut it. Your retina cannot get enough sunlight, so you’d be doing yourself a favor in investing in warm winter coats, hats and gloves to safely and comfortably spend time outside. Morning is best since the sun rays will not be as strong.
This could even become a great opportunity to take up new hobbies and activities like skiing, snowboarding, ice skating or even ice fishing.
Strengthen your immune system
There also tends to be a greater propensity toward depressive symptoms immediately following a viral illness. When you get a cold, your immune system is stirred up in a way that it’s a risk factor for depression. Combat cold and flu season by eating a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables, maintain a good workout routine, get enough sleep and stay warm!
Don’t let winter time get you blue. Try these two simple and achievable strategies to upkeep your mental, physical and emotional health in the shorter days of winter. For more tips on staying healthy check out our BLOG