With winter drawing ever more near, the amount of sunlight we have each day slowly slips through our fingers. "Falling back" is a sign of these times. For some of us, it’s dark when we leave for work in the morning and dark when we head home in the evening.
This shift in the amount of sunlight we regularly receive can have a powerful effect on our bodies. Commonly referred to as the "winter blues," seasonal affective disorder, or SAD (yes, the primary symptom can be deduced from the acronym itself), describes a dramatic shift in mood that is linked to the change in season. Although it is more common to experience SAD during the winter, the symptoms may occur during any major season shift (e.g., going into summer). Despite its removal as a separate mood disorder in the new edition of "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," the terminology, symptoms and treatment all remain relevant for the general population, so it will be discussed in those terms for the purposes of this article.
What is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder is a specific kind of depression that shows up in otherwise-healthy people during a specific time of year. These people, for instance, may only battle the melancholy moods November through February and may never give depression another thought during the other eight months.
Many sufferers experience this mood shift every year but attribute it to the normal "winter blues and try to "tough it out." This may be effective for the "off-days" that everyone experiences every now and then, but symptoms of this season-linked depression are often too overwhelming to manage without some kind of treatment. Symptoms of SAD are similar to general depression and include feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, a loss of energy, oversleeping, social withdrawal and difficulty concentrating.
But what does the season have to do with whether someone is depressed or not? Though the specific causes of SAD are still unknown, it appears that light (or lack of light) plays an important role.
For example, the reduced amount of sunlight available may upset your internal body clock, or circadian rhythm, and this disruption may cause someone to experience depression. Also, serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain linked to the rise and fall of mood, is affected by sunlight. It seems that a lack of sunlight may decrease the lack of serotonin in the brain, contributing to depression. In addition, the lack of sunlight affects the amount of melatonin your body makes. Melatonin is responsible for sleep patterns and also plays a role in mood.
Tips and treatment options
Depression, at any time of year, can be a challenging thing to manage. However, there are some simple changes you can make to help you get through a seasonal slump.
Firstly, eat well. Make sure you’re getting extra servings of veggies, and stay away from fried foods. Also, eating foods rich in vitamin D, like spinach and kale, can do a ton to boost mental health.
Secondly, keep exercising. Yes, I know it’s much more appealing to curl up in front of a fire and binge-watch "Downton Abbey," but exercising does wonders for mood elevation.
One of the most commonly utilized and effective treatment options for those suffering with seasonal depression is bright light therapy. Yes, exposure to natural daylight is always the best option. But in lieu of that, this kind of therapy works wonders for some. Users sit in front of a bright light (though not staring directly at it) for 30-60 minutes for a prescribed number of days per week. The effectiveness of light therapy is linked to the understanding that this light makes up for diminished sunlight exposure and serves to reset the body’s internal clock.
In addition to this traditional treatment option, other available treatment choices include dawn simulation, in which timed lights gradually brighten up a room over a period of time, and antidepressant medication (specifically ones that boost serotonin levels, as referenced above).
Though I’ve given advice and at-home treatment options for those who suffer with the symptoms of SAD, this is no substitute for professional medical advice. Of course, it’s totally normal for everyone to feel down every once in a while. But if the symptoms discussed above align with your experience, make an appointment to speak with a mental health care professional as soon as possible. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your yearly bout with depression is something you just have to "tough out."
Rashad J. Gober is a gym junkie, avid runner and freelance writer whose interests include pop culture and healthy living. But he's not a doctor, so his suggestions are no substitute for medical advice. Feel free to contact him via Twitter or email with any comments or suggestions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.