March is a long month. Although we may feel like spring is right around the corner, the reality is that we have a lengthy month ahead of us before we start to see the emergence of spring weather. This time of year can be hard for everyone. Shorter days, less sunlight, challenging travel and road conditions, cold air, gloomy rain and snow, the let-down after the busy holiday period – all of this can add up to very challenging times.
For more than half a million Americans, this time of the year is particularly challenging, causing them to suffer from a type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This seasonal depression is most common in women and in people who live in cloudy regions or at high altitudes.
For too long, SAD was thought to be a minor problem that sufferers could easily fix by simply “lifting their mood”. However, now after years of research, we know that SAD is real and it can have deep ramifications. As you know your immune system is deeply impacted when you’re fighting depression, making you more susceptible to disease and illness.
If you or someone you know is suffering with depression that emerges during the winter months, it could be due to SAD. Read on to learn about the symptoms of SAD, ways to treat SAD, and how to get support.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms
In general, SAD symptoms appear in the late fall or early winter and ease off during thespring and summer months. Researchers have learned that SAD symptoms start off mild and progress in severity as we get deeper into the winter season. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to know what to be aware of – do not let these symptoms linger, hoping they’ll go away on their own –because typically they will only become more severe as the winter persists.
- A feeling of depression that lasts through-out the day and persists every day.
- Zero to no interest in activities that you normally enjoy
- Low energy and feelings of sluggishness.
- Trouble sleeping and concentrating.
- Craving carbohydrate-rich foods, appetite changes, and weight gain.
- A feeling of loss, guilt, or thoughts of death or suicide.
As you can understand, these are not symptoms that can be ignored. SAD can have lasting impacts for anyone living with this condition.
While the cause of SAD is not fully known, researchers do believe it is connected to an imbalance in our bodies. During the winter months, there is less available sunlight and this can set off a series of events that affects our biological clock, our ability to maintain the serotonin levels in our brain, and can result in an over production of melatonin. This creates the perfect storm in our body that causes some people to feel sluggish, to oversleep, to struggle with their moods and to experience changes in hormones and neurotransmitters.
Managing and Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder
As with all forms of depression, what works for one person is not necessarily going to work for everyone. Take the time to discuss your SAD treatment options with your healthcare professional and create a treatment plan that addresses the primary stimuli of SAD.
- Enjoy the morning sun. The morning sun rise is not only spectacular but it’s a great way to get some much needed natural sunlight exposure. When you get up in the morning, open your curtains to let in the morning light and if possible get out for an early morning walk. Or even just stand outside on your front step or yard feeling the sun rays on your skin. Every little boost of sunshine you can get can help level out your biological clock and fix imbalances in your serotonin and melatonin levels.
- Create a routine. When you’re suffering from SAD, it’s common to not feel like meeting up with friends or participating in your normal activities. However, it’s very important that you create a routine that gets you out and enjoying your normal activities. Rely on your friends for extra support during this very tough time.
- Light therapy. Recent research studies have shown that up to 50% of people suffering from SAD benefit from light box therapy. The bright light coming from a light box helps stimulate and awaken your biological clock – even impacting the levels of melatonin in your body. Some research suggests that it takes just a few days of light therapy to see a change in those suffering from SAD. However, light box therapy devices are not regulated by the FDA, so it’s important you talk to your healthcare professional about how best to use these devices.
- Serotonin-boosting foods. We are what we eat, and we know that there are some foods that can help to stimulate our serotonin and tryptophan (needed to create serotonin) levels. Fortunately, these foods are some of the tastiest and healthiest we can eat – cruciferous vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and whole grains can all help. Some of our favorites include mushrooms, pineapple, tofu, peanut butter, pistachios, grapefruit, oatmeal, and cauliflower. Support your overall wellness and immune system health with a healthy balanced diet packed with flavorful mineral and vitamin-rich foods.
- Reduce sugar intake. Consuming high amounts of sugar has been shown to have a connection to developing diabetes, some cancers and now it’s believed sugar can impact our mental health. When our energy levels are low, we can crave sugar for an immediate energy boost, but the inevitable sugar-crash can be very serious for anyone suffering from SAD.
Depression and SAD are not easy to diagnose or treat. It’s important that you speak honestly about your symptoms and how you’re really feeling. There is no shame in admitting that you’re feeling sad, low, or not like yourself. There is help available for you. SAD can be treated and managed, allowing you to live a full and happy life during the tough winter months. Speak up and accept the help and support of your family and friends.