Seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a condition characterized by a low mood during a particular season. You can try several methods to combat SAD if you experience the condition.
Researchers are studying thousands of new treatments and you could be a part of finding a cure while accessing the newest treatments for Seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is classified as a subtype of major depression. While major depression does not have a particular pattern, SAD is only present during certain seasons.
SAD is commonly called winter depression because it occurs more frequently during the winter months when the periods of daylight are shorter.
If you have SAD, you only experience depression at a specific time of the year, like winter or summer. When that season has passed, your depression goes away and doesn’t return until the same time next year.
A combination of environmental and biological factors causes SAD.
Environmental factors relate to seasonal changes, light, and your location. Biological factors are connected to your body clock, which is influenced by your environment and genes.
If you live in a seasonal location—especially in the far north or south of the world—you experience a variation in light exposure throughout the year due to different day lengths in summer and winter.
As a result of this, your body might have difficulty adapting to a particular season. When this occurs, your body clock becomes disrupted, affecting your sleeping patterns, eating habits, hormones, and mood.
Understanding the symptoms will enable you to detect early signs, allowing you to prepare for SAD before it worsens.
Cravings for carbohydrates or sweet food
Delayed onset of sleep
Hypersomnia - oversleeping and daytime tiredness
Winter SAD may start when you notice the days becoming shorter or when the clocks are turned back an hour for daylight savings. Early signs typically appear around late fall or early winter, and your symptoms can persist until the end of winter or early spring.
Symptoms of summer SAD:
Insomnia - difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep
Summer SAD can start when the days become longer or when the clocks go forward for daylight savings. It may also occur in people who live closer to the equator.
Early signs typically appear around late spring or early summer, and symptoms can persist until the end of summer or early fall.
Creating a management plan for SAD before it worsens may help you transition into your affected season more smoothly.
However, don’t panic if SAD is significantly affecting you right now, as you can try several methods to ease your symptoms.
If antidepressants are suitable for you, your doctor might prescribe you a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) as a first-line treatment. Fluoxetine and sertraline are two commonly-used examples.
SSRIs are a type of antidepressant that enables serotonin to have a longer effect on the brain. Researchers have linked altered serotonin to SAD, so the goal is to increase the amount of serotonin available for your brain to use.
Serotonin helps the brain regulate your mood, and it is partially influenced by vitamin D levels which help encourage serotonin production.
Your body derives vitamin D from sunlight; thus, during the shorter winter days, your body has less vitamin D to trigger serotonin production.
Although a vitamin D deficiency can impact the production of serotonin, other factors can also play a part.
As mentioned above, if your symptoms are acute or severe, your doctor may opt for antidepressants as a first-line treatment. However, they may also recommend lifestyle changes.
You can limit your antidepressants to the season that affects you if you prefer. Some people resume taking antidepressants before their SAD strikes as this can minimize or prevent some of their symptoms before they occur.
For example, if you have winter SAD, you can ask your doctor to reduce your dose until it’s safe to stop your medication after winter has passed. To stay on top of SAD, you could re-start your treatment just before you expect to encounter SAD again.
You should always discuss your treatment plan with your doctor, who will guide you on the best method for your personal experience.
If you experience summer SAD, your doctor might also be able to prescribe you an antidepressant.
Due to the decreased amount of light, you might have lower vitamin D levels during winter, which means you have less serotonin. So, a vitamin D supplement could help restore your serotonin levels and might also benefit your overall health.
Vitamin D has a range of positive effects, such as maintaining cognitive health, bone health, gut health, and immune function¹. Vitamin D can also reduce the risk of many serious illnesses like heart disease and cancer.
If you feel particularly run down during winter, a vitamin D supplement could help you feel better.
Maintaining your physical health will undoubtedly improve your overall well-being. However, evidence suggests that getting vitamin D from sunlight² is preferable to diet or supplements alone.
If you are taking vitamin D supplements, you should still make an effort to spend some time outside during winter when the weather is good to get more vitamin D from sunlight.
Since changing levels of light exposure can disrupt your body clock, researchers³ have tried different techniques to restore the right balance of light.
The number one recommendation for winter onset SAD is light therapy. Research⁴ has found that using a 2,500 to 10,000 lux light for 30 to 60 minutes at the same time every day is effective for reducing symptoms.
SAD lamps are readily available over the counter and best used in the morning around 8-9am. You can use them while doing other things, such as working at your desk or watching TV.
SAD lamps can be used in advance of your anticipated onset of SAD, such as during mid-fall. If you like, you can use them all year to help improve your circadian rhythm or restrict your use to the fall and winter months.
Trials³ have also looked at using dawn simulators. These devices slowly light up the room for 90 minutes before you plan to wake up, which mimics a sunrise. They may offer some benefits, especially for waking up more easily in the morning.
If you experience summer SAD, light therapy is not ideal for you. Instead, you could try limiting your light exposure before bedtime by darkening your home and using blackout curtains or a sleep mask at night.
Practicing good sleep hygiene is beneficial for summer and winter SAD as it regulates your body clock and improves your mood. Sleep hygiene involves maintaining good habits to promote better sleep.
Here are some recommended practices⁵:
Go to bed at the same time every night (don’t force this, though, it may be easier to focus on the time you wake)
Wake up at the same time every morning
Avoid screens two hours before your bedtime
Remove bright electronic devices from your bedroom
Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and large meals before bedtime
Exercise during the day so you will be more tired at night
Create a relaxing routine before bed
Avoid working or studying before bedtime
Try a sound machine with pink or white noise
You will certainly notice an improvement by simply trying a few actions from the list. However, it would help to aim for most of these practices for the best possible effect.
While socializing may feel like the last thing you want to do while experiencing SAD, you should make some effort because talking to family or friends can help.
If seeing a group of people feels too daunting, you could try meeting with one person for a coffee or a walk. Or you could have regular phone calls with someone close to you.
Talking about your SAD to a trusted friend or family member might also be helpful. If someone else is aware of your SAD, they could help you when you’re feeling particularly down.
If you can’t find a friend or family member to do this, you could try a support group.
Going outdoors might sound unpleasant, especially when the weather is cold. However, a simple walk around the block might be all you need.
Going outdoors will enable you to:
Get some fresh air
Get some vitamin D from sunlight
Enjoy a change of scenery
See other people while you’re out and about
Overall, going outdoors offers several benefits⁶. One of these is reconnecting with nature, which will also remind you that the seasons will soon change and, as a result, your SAD will soon be over.
General maintenance of your well-being is an essential part of coping with SAD. You can do this through various ways, such as exercise, healthy eating, or practicing mindfulness, so choose an option that best suits you.
Any exercise you can manage will significantly improve your well-being. If you’ve lost motivation to exercise, it’s essential to set yourself small goals to get back on track.
Experts⁷ say that exercise can reduce anxiety and depression, improve immune function, and improve physical health. So, exercising during winter is beneficial for your mind and body.
However, exercising outdoors might sound unpleasant for people with winter SAD due to the cold weather. Therefore, during the winter months, you could switch to indoor exercises, such as joining a gym or following a routine from an online instructor in your home.
Maintaining a healthy diet is beneficial for your mind and body.
If you have winter SAD, you might have noticed that you tend to eat more carbohydrates or sugary food. To limit your intake of these unhealthy foods and satisfy your appetite, you should eat protein-rich food.
Foods with a high protein content help you to feel fuller for longer. You should also opt for foods rich in vitamins, such as vegetables and fruits.
If you have summer SAD, then you might have a decreased appetite. You should try eating small, calorie-dense, healthy meals when possible.
Mindfulness involves being present at the moment and allowing your body to experience an array of feelings without judgment.
Learning to reconnect with your mind and body can offer a great deal of relief. Many mindfulness practices, such as breath work, also help reduce your stress response.
Some mindfulness practices include:
If you’re unsure where to start, many books, online resources, podcasts, and apps are available for you to download to your phone to get started.
Whether you have winter or summer SAD, finding some hobbies and activities will be a welcome distraction.
If you’re someone who typically spends a lot of time outside, winter might be a particularly tough time for you. If you have winter SAD, you might need to find something else to do when you would usually spend outdoors.
You need to be kind to yourself when you’re living with seasonal affective disorder, and you need to set realistic goals. Finding the right balance in your daily life is important.
Taking on too much during this time might feel overwhelming or daunting while dealing with SAD. However, having nothing to keep you busy or motivated is not a good thing either.
If you haven’t achieved everything you intended to do in one day, that’s okay. Instead, you should focus on everything you’ve achieved and set yourself smaller goals next time if that helps.
If you can, visit your doctor before your seasonal depression symptoms start. Doing so will enable you to have a plan in place that will ease your transition into your SAD changes.
Don’t hesitate to see a doctor if your SAD symptoms worsen.
Having regular visits with a healthcare professional
To stay on top of seasonal affective disorder, it might help to schedule some appointments in advance with a healthcare professional. These could be with a nurse, doctor, or mental health counselor.
Having regular appointments in place will enable you to check in with someone who can help you through regular consultations.
Booking these appointments in advance might also provide some reassurance should your SAD worsen as the season progresses.
If you dread a particular time of year due to seasonal affective disorder, then several techniques are available for you to try to make the season easier for you.
Looking after yourself during this time is important, and don’t hesitate to ask for help should you need it.
Tips for better sleep | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Nurtured by nature | American Psychological Association
Exercise and mental health (2017)