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The Winter Blues: Could It Be Seasonal Affective Disorder?

By LifeStance Health on December 29, 2022

Even with the hustle and bustle of holiday activity, some people may start to feel off or down during the winter months. As the days shorten and the weather turns for the worse, it gets harder to continue our regular activities outside, like jogging or hiking. Sunlight is a well-known mood enhancer and as the days grow shorter until the winter solstice, our moods may turn as well.

While everyone experiences periods of optimism and gloom, if it becomes harder to shake off the winter blues, you might be suffering from seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD, a type of depression. Whether feeling down during winter is a change in general mood or something more serious depends on the effects of the changes. If the winter blues start to affect how you feel, think or interrupt daily routines, it might be time to consider reaching out for professional help.

Causes of SAD

Studies are not conclusive on the causes of SAD. Some scientists think that people with SAD have reduced production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, that helps regulate mood and is often referred to as the happiness hormone. Serotonin is created with tryptophan and is activated by vitamin D. While vitamin D sounds like it’s a vitamin like the others, it’s actually a prohormone (a precursor to a hormone) that the body uses to make all its hormones like serotonin. Studies have shown that people with low levels of vitamin D are more prone to depression. One of the best ways to get vitamin D is through sunlight on the skin.

Other findings suggest that people with SAD also produce too much melatonin—a hormone that is responsible for maintaining our Circadian rhythm or our sleep-wake cycles. Melatonin is synthesized from serotonin and its release in the body is stimulated by darkness. Too much melatonin can cause sleepiness and sluggishness, classic symptoms of SAD. When our hormone production is out of whack, it creates a chemical imbalance in our bodies.

While we all experience less sunlight in the winter, people with SAD may have a harder time adjusting to the reduced serotonin levels from reduced sunlight exposure. The changes in serotonin and melatonin levels due to the lack of sunlight disrupt the normal daily rhythms and lead to changes in sleep, mood and behavior. People can get vitamin D in other ways from eating foods rich in vitamin D to taking supplements, but this may not help those with severe forms of depression.

Signs of SAD

What makes SAD unique is its recurrent seasonal pattern. It is not considered a separate disorder but is a type of depression lasting about 4 to 5 months per year. Signs and symptoms of SAD are the same as those associated with major depression. SAD takes on different characteristics depending on which season it occurs. Winter-pattern symptoms may include:

  • Constantly feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day, even with holiday activities and increased social obligations from family and friends.
  • No longer interested in doing activities you once enjoyed and hibernating from social activities like playing fantasy football with friends or participating in a reading club.
  • Experiencing changes in your feelings towards food.
  • Overeating or gaining weight, with a craving for carbohydrates.
  • Issues with sleep and feeling sluggish or oversleeping (hypersomnia).
  • Lack of energy to maintain daily activities and feeling hopeless.

Treatments for SAD

If you think you might be suffering from SAD, there is hope. Different treatments are available to help alleviate the symptoms SAD. The treatments can be used separately or in a combination. It is best to seek the advice of a medical professional to discuss the best treatment forward for you.

Sun Therapy – Numerous studies have shown that getting sunlight on your skin help improve the immune system by energizing our T-cells, reduce blood sugar levels,  and even reduce nearsightedness. The winter solstice is right around the corner on December 21st, so that soon, the amount of sunlight each day will get longer. No wonder why humans throughout the ages have celebrated the shortest day of the year. It’s a harbinger that more daily sunlight is ahead.

Phototherapy – Used to offset SAD for decades, light therapy has been an effective treatment for some suffering from SAD. It exposes people with SAD to very bright light box (10,000 lux) every day for about 30 to 45 minutes, usually first thing in the morning, from fall to spring. This tries to make up for the lack of natural sunshine in the winter months. The light boxes are about much brighter than ordinary indoor light and filter out damaging UV light.

Vitamin D – With the connection between vitamin D and the production of serotonin and melatonin, many people with SAD often have vitamin D deficiency as well. While a natural conclusion might be that nutritional supplements of vitamin D or eating foods high in vitamin D may help improve symptoms, studies have not seen this link.

Psychotherapy – For many suffering from SAD, speaking with a mental health professional is the first step towards recovery. A therapist will be able to identify and describe a treatment program that works for each individual. Some techniques that a therapist might use include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and group sessions. CBT is a kind of talk therapy that teaches how to cope with the effects of SAD. Often times a group setting is advantageous so that more ideas about how to replace negative thoughts can be shared.

Medications – A therapist might also prescribe medication in conjunction with talk therapy as part of a more comprehensive treatment plan. SAD, like other types of depression, is linked with an imbalance in serotonin and antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are helpful when symptoms occur. These medications can raise moods and help a person refocus on daily activities. As with all medication, there may be side effects.