As the days get increasingly shorter, the temperature drops and the sun’s nourishing rays make a fleeting appearance over the horizon, it’s no surprise that some of us experience a noticeable dip in mood and energy. Though these changes are part and parcel for people living in cold climates, for some of us, this seasonal shift hits us particularly hard.
Though it’s not uncommon to feel a little low-energy and miserable in the winter, feeling flat, unmotivated, depressed, sleeping poorly or having an increase in sugar cravings for more than two weeks may indicate that you could be struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD as it’s aptly known.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
A telling six percent of people in the US experience the debilitating effects of SAD, with the number increasing the farther away from the equator one goes. Research suggests a further 10-20 percent endure mild symptoms of this seasonal mood disorder — those with a history of depression, women, as well as people 20 years and younger are especially susceptible to this winter condition. Though the majority of sufferers tend to be women, men tend to suffer the symptoms of the condition more severely.
So if SAD is more than a case of the winter blues remedied with a cup of cocoa or a brisk walk, how can you tell whether you’re suffering from it or not? Though each person can experience one or more of the following SAD symptoms, if symptoms seem to begin at the same time each year and last for a prolonged period, you may indeed be dealing with SAD and should consult a physician:
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is associated with:
- Lack of motivation
- Change in appetite (eating more/weight gain)
- Compromised concentration
- Insomnia or oversleeping
- Suicidal thoughts (in extreme cases)
More on seasonal affective disorder symptoms in just a bit.
What triggers SAD?
Though research has not quite cemented the specific triggers of SAD, certain factors frequently set off its symptoms:
Disrupted circadian rhythm: The reduction of light in the winter months may disrupt and confuse your body’s internal clock, which in turn has a domino effect on the hormones below.
Depletion in serotonin levels: Some people suffering SAD will see a significant drop in serotonin levels (your feel-good hormone) in winter. It’s no coincidence that we tend to be more cheery in the summer months, as our brains produce more serotonin on sunny days than on darker ones. Vitamin D, which your skin absorbs from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, has an effect on your serotonin and in turn, your happiness.
Rise in melatonin levels: The hormone melatonin is responsible for regulating your sleep cycle. It’s what induces the drowsiness you feel once it gets dark, eventually sending you off to sleep. The increased darkness in winter, leads to an increase in melatonin, making us feel fatigued earlier, for longer.
Most common SAD symptoms
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder tend to emerge in late fall and early winter, extending into early or late spring. SAD may manifest itself subtly, increasing in severity and intensity as winter progresses.
Depression & Lack of Motivation
Experiencing sadness is both natural and healthy. However, it’s a different matter if feelings of melancholy stay to roost or evolve into a sense of emptiness or disconnect from the people or activities that once interested you. Depression is one of the most common SAD symptoms that you should take seriously. If you find yourself regularly entertaining thoughts of death or suicide, please contact a mental health professional or dial an emergency hotline immediately.
Of course, with winter comes the nearing of Christmas and the mounting pressure to meet family, social and work obligations before the holidays. Though increased feelings of irritability and stress are common at this time of year, when such feelings develop into regular episodes of anxiety and/or panic extending well into spring, it’s likely to be a symptom of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Change in appetite (eating more or weight gain)
Sure, winter is a great time to indulge in festive feasting with Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas lined up one after another. However, dips in serotonin caused by SAD means that you may start to crave simple carbohydrates and sweets to boost your mood on a daily basis. Often, this increase in appetite is escorted with a lack of motivation to exercise or move due to the accompanying fatigue, inevitably leading to weight gain in the winter months.
Does it feel like someone swapped out your brain with cotton candy? As amusing as the image may be, brain fog is quite distressing for those who suffer from it. SAD can prompt you to forget the simplest of things and make you feel unable to concentrate on a task for long periods. Find yourself easily distracted? Before you worry you’re losing your mind, let us reassure you’re not. As the wintertime progresses, these symptoms intensify in those who are dealing with SAD symptoms.
Fatigue and oversleeping
As we touched on earlier, the spike in melatonin during the wintertime is a significant contributing factor when it comes to feeling extreme fatigue. The fact that dawn arrives later in the morning and dusk hits in the late afternoon — or eek, even earlier in some countries — it’s no wonder that it can be a struggle to emerge from our warm blanketed cocoon in the morning while fighting our body’s natural impulse to hibernate throughout the day. If only we were bears.
How to treat SAD naturally
Do any of the above symptoms sound familiar? If yes, then the next step is finding a healthy approach to manage the ripple effects of seasonal affective mood disorder.
Unless you’re planning on relocating closer to the equator for six months of the year, then getting enough vitamin D-rich sunlight in the winter is unfortunately out of your hands. The next best thing, in this case, is investing in a light therapy box — aka lightbox.
Studies show that 60-80 percent of people with SAD symptoms see a significant improvement in mood with 15-20 minutes of daily exposure to a lightbox. If you do go down the light therapy route, it’s essential to make it a daily habit in the winter months if you wish to see a noticeable alleviation of SAD symptoms. Just be careful if you’re prone to headaches, migraines, or eye strains, as UV light therapy may exacerbate such conditions.
Food is both fuel and medicine, so before throwing caution to the wind and succumbing to those starchy treats and comfortings sweets, take a moment to tinker with your nutrition, and you’ll be surprised how you feel.
SAD-busting foods: Warm and cozy foods will heat you from the core and nourish your soul. Let the season inspire you. Focus on local fruits, vegetables, healthy oils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and lean protein such as chicken, fish, tofu, and beef.
One reason you may crave sweets and baked treats is that refined carbohydrates raise serotonin, lending your body a quick rush of feel-good chemicals. But this happy high doesn’t last long and will leave you feeling lower than before. Highly processed and high sugar diets are linked to depression so focus on those wholesome, anti-inflammatory foods instead.
Winter supplements: Some nutrient deficiencies are associated with symptoms of depression. It’s always best to get these through food, however, if your doctor recommends that you supplement your diet, make sure you know what to look for.
- Vitamin D: Sunlight, fatty fish, liver, cheese, egg yolks. When supplementing, choose the D3 version
- Omega 3: Fish, seafood, grass-fed meats, flax, chia, and walnuts
- Vitamin B12: Grass-fed beef, salmon, eggs, dairy, and fortified nutritional yeast
- Folate: Beans, lentils, leafy greens, fortified grains, and cereals
- Zinc: Shellfish, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans
Anyone who has ever been through depression or prolonged periods of fatigue knows the mere thought of leaving your bed, let alone gathering the energy to exercise is a Herculean task. Now we’re not suggesting you go from the sofa to a 10k in a heartbeat. But something as simple as walking around the block or taking a lunchtime stroll for 30 minutes for ten consecutive days is enough to alleviate a sense of despondency and improve energy levels.
What makes exercise such a useful tool in seasonal affective disorder treatment is that the more you do it, the more your body craves it. Exercising flushes your mind with positive hormones and energizes your body. The bonus is that it also strengthens your immunity, guarding your body against the onslaught of the common cold or flu prevalent in the colder months of the year.
Once you feel more energized, you can start to incorporate other more invigorating activities into your repertoire. Maybe sign up to a local dance class, squeeze in a morning swim at your local YMCA or, if time is an issue, sign up for the 8fit Pro app and get in a short HIIT session or two from the cozy convenience of your own home.
To medicate or not to medicate
Although all of the above seasonal affective disorder treatments can play a pivotal role in digging yourself out of a SAD slump, if you still find yourself struggling with severe symptoms of depression, anxiety or extreme fatigue; we highly encourage you to seek out medicinal and therapeutic support from a mental health professional.
Some days you may feel as if there is no way out of your current predicament, but we’re here to reassure you that this is temporary and there are viable solutions. It’s easy to feel weak or less-than, but the fact that you have identified your needs now makes you exceptionally strong and with a little patience, and perseverance you’ll once again gain health and agency in your life.