Fall is approaching which in many parts of the world means changing leaves, a reprieve from the heat, baked goods, and cozy sweaters. Along with the cooler temperatures, the sun sets earlier and the days are shorter. When the weather starts to change, we experience changes to our body’s internal clock and mood. These changes can cause Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Seasonal Affective Disorder typically affects women more than men and is seen more frequently in young adults and adolescents than in older adults. It is a form of depression that predominantly affects people with the changing of seasons. The most common form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is brought on with the change from summer into fall and winter. While there’s no specific cause of SAD, we have a few educated guesses.
Your circadian rhythm, or internal clock, is affected by the decrease in sunlight during fall and winter, which could bring on seasonal depression. A decrease in serotonin, melatonin, and vitamin D could all play a part as well. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood. Decreased sunlight leads to a drop in serotonin, which could result in seasonal depression. vitamin D is another important vitamin for mood regulation. We naturally get 90% of our vitamin D from the sun. The fall and winter weather limits our exposure to both the sun and vitamin D. Melatonin helps regulate mood and healthy sleep patterns. Changes in sleep naturally affect your mood which exacerbates issues with other brain chemicals.
There’s no cure for seasonal affective disorder. The best course of action is to manage symptoms and be mindful of what your mind and body need. While most cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder have symptoms that appear in late fall, some people experience a pattern that begins in spring and lasts through summer. Regardless, SAD has a pattern of mild symptoms that become progressively more severe.
While SAD and major depression share similarities, there are several key differences. Namely, that seasonal depression is seasonal, as opposed to year-round or occurring without a recognizable pattern. SAD shares many of the same symptoms of major depression including:
- Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
- Lethargy and tiredness
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Weight gain or unintentional weight loss
- Changes in appetite
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Suicidal thoughts/actions
Summer onset SAD can also include:
- Anxiety or agitation
- Increased irritability
- Poor appetite
People with bipolar disorder have an increased risk of developing Seasonal Affective Disorder. Episodes of depression and mania are often triggered by seasonal changes. It’s common to experience a manic or hypomanic episode in spring with symptoms like irritability, anxiety, or agitation and to experience depression in fall or winter.
It’s important to know when to see a doctor to address the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Many people with SAD feel like they can just wait it out as opposed to seeking help. Symptoms worsen throughout the season so taking steps for treatment is important. Be sure to see a healthcare provider when you experience appetite changes, sleep changes, and especially if you have suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm.
If you naturally turn to alcohol, food, or other substances for comfort, it’s important to be aware of your cyclical mood changes. Left unchecked, SAD can lead to and exacerbate substance abuse, eating disorders, or self-harm.
It’s common for substance abuse to go hand-in-hand with mental health issues like seasonal affective disorder. Many people use substances as a coping mechanism to self-soothe their symptoms of depression. Part of this could be the lack of availability of other coping mechanisms because the winter weather makes it more difficult to go outside and many people travel for the holidays so your normal community might not be as accessible.
While reaching for your comfortable and familiar coping mechanism such as alcohol or drugs might seem appealing, it’s important to make healthy choices. Even if your depression is short-term, substance abuse takes much longer to overcome.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to prevent developing seasonal affective disorder. However, if treated and managed well, you can prevent it from becoming worse over time. Many people have found that it’s helpful for them to start treating symptoms before the change of seasons. For example, develop a routine in the summer of taking vitamin D supplements, establish a habit of daily journaling, develop a daily exercise routine, and create a social support network.
Because there’s no way to fully prevent SAD, it’s important to manage your symptoms. Everyone is different but a combination of mindful practices such as breathing, exercising, and nutrition are extremely helpful. Most importantly, don’t delay managing your symptoms or seeking help even if Seasonal Affective Disorder is seasonal.
Here are a few tips for managing your symptoms:
While 90% of our vitamin D comes from the sun, it’s important to protect your skin. For example, don’t self-tan or spend time in the sun without proper sun protection such as hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen. A vitamin D supplement is a great way to make sure you still get enough of this essential vitamin.
Another option, especially for people who live farther North where sunlight is sparse in the winter months, is a sun lamp. Light therapy is a popular treatment for SAD because it helps regulate your body’s melatonin production. A great use of a sun lamp is to set the timer for the light to turn on and off with the natural rising and setting of the sun to help regulate your circadian rhythm.
Exercise is a natural mood booster and daily physical activity is another great way to combat the symptoms of SAD. Besides the gym, try yoga, taking a walk outside, or doing something simple like 10 pushups or squats every hour. Set achievable, actionable goals for yourself such as holding a plank. Start with 30 seconds, then 45 seconds, then 60.
A symptom of seasonal depression is an increased desire for comfort foods and weight gain. Nutrition is a key piece of overall health and especially important when treating the symptoms of seasonal depression. While self-soothing with food is common, it’s important to eat a healthy, balanced diet and be aware of what constitutes disordered eating. Feed your brain with essential vitamins and minerals by eating a balanced diet full of fruits, vegetables, protein, and whole grains. Along with eating well, it’s important to make sure you’re drinking enough water. Dehydration, even in mild forms, can impact our brain and cause increased depression symptoms.
Lastly, make sure you are getting enough sleep. On average, adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. Oversleeping can slow brain function while under-sleeping can impact our mood, reaction time, and focus.
If you or your loved one is struggling with seasonal depression, worsening substance use, or addiction, please reach out to our team. We are dedicated to connecting you with the best treatment option available for your unique situation. To begin your treatment journey, call Sabino Recovery today at (844) 286-0516.