As the days get shorter, you might find yourself feeling a little bit blue. Maybe it’s a “down” day, maybe it’s a few weeks. For some people, it can become a full-blown problem that feels like a winter depression. It’s good to know the signs associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) so that you can be on the lookout for yourself and the ones you love. There are a few simple things you can do to help yourself beat the winter blues, and we’ll share those with you today.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
The Mayo Clinic defines Season Affective Disorder (SAD) as “a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons … a subtype of major depression.’
Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression, may include:
- Tiredness or low energy
- Problems getting along with other people
- Hypersensitivity to rejection
- Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
Why we get SAD
SAD can take over as we shift into winter, mostly because our circadian rhythm (intern body clock) gets jolted with the shorter days. Our eyes (and brains) are used to seeing sunlight at a certain time of day, and for a certain AMOUNT of time each day. When we wake up in the dark mornings and leave work when it’s dark outside, our body clocks can get out of whack, causing some of the symptoms mentioned above.
Another winter obstacle is cold and flu season — often caused by viral infection. Interestingly, depressive symptoms can occur immediately following a cold or flu, contributing to the effects of SAD.
How to treat SAD
Combating the lack of sunlight with vitamin D3 supplements is a good idea for most of us here in the Bay, as we live far enough from the equator to be concerned about deficiency. But SAD isn’t merely a D3 deficiency. As we said up top, it’s a sensitivity to the disruption in our circadian rhythm that comes with those shorter days and longer nights. To truly address the problem, we need to increase our sunlight exposure, especially in the morning.
The truth of the matter is that the higher the latitude you get, the LESS SUN there is. Sunlight is in shorter supply, and chances are if you do go outside it’s not first thing in the morning — and it’s probably pretty cold too. Getting outside in the winter is important for a number of wellbeing factors, including connecting with nature, putting your feet on the ground, breathing fresh air, but if you’re susceptible to SAD, the biggest reason is to get some sunlight into your eyes.
If you can’t do that, consider testing out a light box (also called a sun box). These boxes hold special light bulbs that mimic sun rays and can help SAD sufferers adjust to the shift in seasons by flooding the brain with “spring sunlight” in the morning.
Light therapy is, in fact, a TREATMENT. We aren’t doctors here at Healthy Me, and we recommend that you consult with your own primary care doctor before you try this treatment at home. There are a few risks to using a light box. If you take medication that makes your skin sensitive to light, including skin medications, some anti-inflammatory medications, and certain herbs, talk to your dermatologist or PCP before starting light therapy.
If you have bipolar disorder, light therapy could trigger mania, hyperactivity, or agitation. Talk to your doctor before giving it a try.
Good Advice for SAD
SAD is a type of depression. It can be tempting to isolate, to curl up with a pillow and Netflix, to eat a gallon of ice cream or an entire pizza when you’re feeling down. We’ve all been there to one degree or another, and we understand that “depression” isn’t the same thing as just “feeling sad.”
The truth of the matter is though, that these behaviors do not actually help you cope, no matter which bucket you fall into. Do your best to find support in your social network rather than trying to do it all on your own. Take advantage of any resources you might have to help you. Go OUT to see a movie instead of holing up in your house if you really don’t want to talk to people, just to be in the presence of others. Do your best to eat well, as inflammatory foods (like sugar, fried foods, and white flour) won’t do anything to help your mood. Exercise helps your body produce endorphines, and if you can exercise outside and get some sun in the process, then do that! Even just a few minutes of getting your blood pumping can help lift your spirits.
And in general, be good to yourself. This time of year can be rough for any number of reasons. Remember what you’re grateful for, and keep moving forward.