Do you find yourself feeling “blue” when the gray days of fall and winter roll around? I’m not talking about the occasional low mood that’s part of a normal, healthy life. I’m talking about extended periods or recurring bouts of feeling low or depressed that seem to go along with changing seasons.
If so, you may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, appropriately abbreviated, “SAD”… no joke. It’s also known as “winter blues” or “holiday blues,” because it’s most common in winter. There’s also a form of summer-onset depression, known as “Reverse SAD,” but I’m not talking about that in this post, as it affects far fewer people.
As with other forms of depression, SAD symptoms may include feelings of guilt, hopelessness, loss of usual enjoyment and various physical complaints. In addition, you typically see the following, although not everyone experiences the same symptoms.
- Craving for carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Increased sleep
- Difficulty concentrating
- Irritability and anxiety
- Decreased sex drive
Who gets SAD and why?
As many as 500,000 people in the U.S. have winter-onset SAD and it affects women more often than men, typically not before age 20. The risk of SAD then decreases with age. (See, getting older isn’t all bad!)
The cause is linked to sunlight exposure, or lack thereof, and to the production of the hormones melatonin and serotonin. In winter, when the hours of daylight decrease, and therefore also our sunlight exposure, melatonin goes up and serotonin goes down. (Serotonin affects mood, among other things, and melatonin is what makes bears hibernate in winter. Sound familiar?) In northern regions like ours, SAD is more common, because our winters are long and dark.
Breaking the SAD connection
Increased exposure to sunlight can improve symptoms, as can light therapy, using a full-spectrum light box. Light therapy has few side effects when used correctly, although it may cause insomnia if used too late in the day. Exercise and a balanced diet are helpful, as well.
In addition, various types of plant-derived supplements may be effective, such as Vitamin D3 (the Sunshine Vitamin), Hypericum perforatum, also known as St. John’s wort, and melatonin. Better yet, combining supplements with light therapy may be most effective. But talk with your doctor first; even natural supplements, whether used alone or in combination with other therapies, must be used correctly and judiciously.
A note about vitamin D – Too much vitamin D (from supplements, not sun exposure) can cause toxicity and may also increase absorption and retention of toxic metals. In the end, sunshine is the best way to get the vitamin D your body needs. Maybe that’s why so many songs croon about it…You are My Sunshine, Here comes the Sun, Walking on Sunshine, and Waiting for the Sun (which is what we often do in Seattle).