For many people, the autumn season represents the start of school, football games, and pumpkin-spiced lattes. For some, it can mark the beginning of a series of unpleasant symptoms associated with seasonal change.
People can experience varying seasonal symptoms, including the “winter blues,” which can begin in the fall, and a clinical disorder known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or seasonal depression. SAD is similar to non-seasonal depression, except it follows a seasonal pattern—typically starting in the fall, worsening in winter, and ending in spring. While less common, some people experience the opposite seasonal pattern with symptoms beginning in spring or summer and ending in fall.
About 500,000 Americans suffer from SAD, 75 percent of whom are women, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Young people and those with a family history of SAD are also at risk. Symptoms of SAD are more common in individuals living far north or south of the equator, possibly due to decreased sunlight during the winter. For those who suffer from clinical depression year-round, symptoms may worsen in fall and winter (or in some cases spring and summer).
While the exact cause of SAD remains unknown, theories exist as to what causes the disruption. One theory is that the body’s internal biological clock, which regulates sleep and mood, shifts due to a lack of sunlight exposure. Another theory is that sunlight reduction can cause a drop in serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that can influence sleep, mood, and behavior. Experts also believe sunlight reduction may disrupt the body’s levels of the sleep hormone melatonin.
So what’s the difference between SAD and the “winter blues?” According to the National Institutes of Health, symptoms of the “winter blues” are mild to moderate, fairly common, shorter-lasting than SAD, and typically go away on their own. SAD is a clinical diagnosis that follows a regular pattern year after year. Symptoms impair daily functioning and can last for months.
Symptoms of fall and winter SAD include:
- Tired/low energy
- Cravings for carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Inability to concentrate
- Withdrawing socially
- Loss of interest
- Sleeping more than usual
Symptoms of spring and summer SAD include:
- Weight loss
- Agitation and anxiety
For those who are suffering, it’s important that you don’t try to diagnose yourself. Instead, seek help from a healthcare professional for a thorough assessment.
Fortunately, there are ways to help combat and even help prevent disruptive seasonal symptoms, including maintaining social connections, a healthy diet, and a regular sleep schedule. Here are some tips:
Natural daylight, even when it’s cloudy, can help to maintain the body’s circadian rhythm, which is responsible for regulating sleep patterns, hormones, and other physiological processes. Exposure, particularly in the morning, tells your body that it is no longer nighttime, signaling it to stop the release of melatonin. Outdoor exposure can also boost serotonin and reduce stress.
Sunlight also provides the body with vitamin D, a vital nutrient for mental health. In a study conducted by Clinical Rheumatology, researchers found depression was higher in fibromyalgia patients with a vitamin D deficiency, compared to patients with inadequate or normal levels.
Take an early morning walk or perform another outdoor activity that you enjoy.
Get Some Exercise
Exercise can improve mood, increase self-esteem, and alleviate symptoms of mild to moderate depression, and perhaps even severe depression, according to Harvard Medical School. A study conducted at Duke University Medical Center found that patients with major depressive disorder who performed aerobic exercise were significantly less likely to have relapse symptoms compared to those who only took medication.
Incorporate exercise into your daily routine—try doing something you enjoy, as you’ll be more likely to stick to it. And when possible, take your workout outside to reap the combined benefits of exercise and sunlight exposure.
Connect With Others
When you feel depressed, a Netflix marathon on your couch may sound more appealing than attending a social gathering. While hibernating may make you feel better in the short term, it can worsen symptoms in the long run. Social connections relieve stress, provide support, and build resilience to life’s challenges, according to the Mayo Clinic. Simply meeting a friend for a cup of coffee can induce feelings of connectedness.
SAD sufferers may find themselves turning to food as a source of comfort when serotonin levels are low. While simple carbohydrates temporarily spike serotonin levels, offering temporary relief, eating poorly is an unhealthy and ineffective solution to manage symptoms in the long run (not to mention the high probably of weight gain it carries).
Whole foods, however, provide your brain with the nutrients and minerals it needs for mental strength. Maintain a healthy diet and weight by consuming a diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Avoid overloading on simple carbohydrates such as sugary treats and soda.
Maintain a Regular Sleep Schedule
Both insomnia and oversleeping can occur when you’re feeling depressed. Put yourself on a regular sleep schedule, which means going to bed and waking up at the same time. Everyone differs in how much sleep they need. Experiment to find out how many hours your body requires to function at an optimal level.
Do Something Different
Breaking away from your normal routine now and then by developing a new hobby can keep the mind active and stimulated. Luckily, you don’t have to go to extremes and take up skydiving for this to be effective. Begin journaling, try a new machine at the gym, or cook a new recipe you haven’t made before. Give yourself something novel to look forward to, even if it seems small and insignificant.
Give Yourself a Break
It’s important to be gentle with yourself when experiencing symptoms of SAD. Sufferers may beat themselves up for feeling so poorly, which can exacerbate symptoms. Remind yourself that what you’re feeling is not your own fault and you’re doing everything within your control to feel better. Celebrate small victories such as getting out of the house for a walk or simply pulling yourself out of bed.
Try Light Therapy
A common therapy for SAD sufferers involves a light box, which is designed to mimic natural sunlight. Sitting near a light box for 15 to 30 minutes a day provides stimulation to retina cells, activating the hypothalamus and resetting circadian rhythms. For those lacking natural sunlight, a light box can provide 10,000 lux of light intensity and is 100 times brighter than light typically found indoors. While generally safe, light boxes can cause side effects such as headache and eye strain.
Increase Vitamin D Intake
As previously mentioned, vitamin D deficiency is associated with seasonal affective disorder. If you think you may have low levels of vitamin D, have your doctor perform a blood test. In addition to sun exposure, you increase your intake with a high-quality vitamin D supplement and by eating foods rich in vitamin D, such as fatty fish, egg yolks, and milk.
Seek Professional Help
There’s no shame in seeking professional help. In fact, a proper assessment and diagnosis is crucial to effectively treating symptoms. A mental health professional can equip you with the proper tools to effectively manage symptoms, while lending much needed support. Remember that if left untreated, symptoms of SAD can worsen.
Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.