Are you feeling a little down, in a funk, with changes in weather, the end of the holiday season, perhaps you’re feeling the so-called “winter blues?”
But don’t brush off these feelings as just a temporary case of the blues. You could be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same time every year. Your symptoms usually start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody.
According to mayoclinic.org, these symptoms often resolve during the sunnier spring and summer months. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer and resolves during the fall or winter months.
Treatment for SAD may include light therapy (phototherapy), psychotherapy, and medications. Take steps to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the year.
According to mayoclinic.org, signs and symptoms of SAD may include:
- Feeling listless, sad or down most of the day, nearly every day
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having low energy and feeling sluggish
- Having problems with sleeping too much
- Experiencing carbohydrate cravings, overeating and weight gain
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
- Having thoughts of not wanting to live
It’s normal to have some days when you feel down. But if you feel down for days at a time and you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, see your health care provider. This is especially important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed, you turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation, or you feel hopeless or think about suicide.
The specific cause of the seasonal affective disorder remains unknown. Some factors that may come into play include:
- Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
- Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
- Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
Seasonal affective disorder is diagnosed more often in women than in men. And SAD occurs more frequently in younger adults than in older adults. Factors that may increase your risk of seasonal affective disorder include:
- Family history. People with SAD may be more likely to have blood relatives with SAD or another form of depression.
- Having major depression or bipolar disorder. Symptoms of depression may worsen seasonally if you have one of these conditions.
- Living far from the equator. SAD appears to be more common among people who live far north or south of the equator. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter and longer days during the summer months.
- Low level of vitamin D. Some vitamin D is produced in the skin when it’s exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D can help to boost serotonin activity. Less sunlight and not getting enough vitamin D from foods and other sources may result in low levels of vitamin D in the body.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there’s no known way to prevent the development of the seasonal affective disorder. However, if you take steps early on to manage symptoms, you may be able to prevent them from getting worse over time.
Treatment for SAD may include a combination of light therapy, medications, and psychotherapy. For some people, increased exposure to sunlight can help improve symptoms of SAD. Keeping your house well lit, spending time outside, and arranging your office or home to be closer to light may help.
Taking care of your overall health and well-being can also be beneficial — exercise regularly, eating a well-balanced diet, proper sleep, and engaging with the community through volunteering or physical activities are important to incorporate. With the right treatment, SAD can be a manageable condition.