Seasonal Affective Disorder: What it is and how to combat symptoms

man looking out window sitting on bed

As the months become colder and the days become shorter, you may begin to feel the effects of the weather and sunlight changes on your body. Noticing the shorter days and less sunlight is normal, however, some individuals may feel these changes more intensely. These individuals are experiencing a condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is reported to affect around 5% of the U.S. population. Individuals who live farther away from the equator tend to be most affected by SAD.

What is SAD?

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that happens during different seasons of the year, most commonly in winter. Mood changes may be attributed to the shorter daylight hours and colder weather. Symptoms may include:

  • Feeling sad or having a depressed mood

  • Loss of interest in activities

  • Changes in appetite

  • Changes in sleep patterns

  • Loss of energy

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • In extreme cases, suicidal thoughts

How does SAD affect your mind?

With fewer hours of sunlight in the fall and winter, an individual’s serotonin levels may become lower, leading to a more depressed mood. Serotonin is the key hormone responsible for stabilizing your mood. If you experience a drop in serotonin levels, you may experience a more depressed mood, increased anxiety, and more. SAD has been linked to biochemical changes and imbalances directly related to fewer sunlight hours during the winter months, when we are experiencing less exposure to sunlight.

In addition to lower levels of serotonin, individuals experiencing SAD may also experience low levels of vitamin D. Studies have shown that individuals experiencing SAD also had low levels of Vitamin D. Low levels of vitamin D can be attributed to insufficient dietary intake and also not enough exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D is an essential part of a health brain and body function.

Does SAD interrupt your sleep patterns?

Shorter daylight during the days may affect your circadian rhythm. When it begins to get dark outside, your body naturally produces more melatonin. When this happens earlier in the day during the winter months, not only can you experience feeling tired earlier in the night, but your mood may also be affected. This is because in addition to sleep onset, melatonin is also linked to regulating your mood. When your circadian rhythms become disrupted with the changes in sunlight hours it may lead to poor sleep hygiene (e.g., going to bed at different times or sleeping too long) and a more depressed mood. 

Individuals experiencing SAD have been shown to sleep an average of 2.7 hours more a day during the winter months than individuals who don’t experience SAD symptoms. Around 80% of those who experience SAD symptoms experience hypersomnia, or excessive sleepiness. While individuals who experience SAD symptoms may sleep longer hours, they also experience a decrease in deep sleep. Deep sleep is essential for being able to wake up refreshed and feel well rested.

Tips for relieving SAD symptoms:

If you’re experiencing what you think may be SAD, there are a few methods that can help get you through the winter blues. You can try these at home, but make sure to consult your healthcare professional, as well. 

Light Therapy

The most prominent treatment for SAD is bright light therapy. Light therapy has been shown to reduce SAD-related depression symptoms as much as 83% after one month. During this type of light therapy, an individual sits in front of a very bright light box (10,000 lux) for 30-45 minutes each day. If you do not have access to bright light therapy treatments, try to get outside or near a window to increase your exposure to sunlight during the day for 30-45 minutes, especially around noon, when the sun is the most prominent in the sky. 

Maintain a consistent sleep schedule

A good way to help relieve SAD symptoms is to maintain proper sleep hygiene. Since individuals who experience SAD tend to have disrupted circadian rhythms and experience sleepiness, it is important to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day in order to try and rebalance your internal clock. Make sure you’re not oversleeping, and monitor the quality of your sleep on the Pod to ensure that you’re getting enough deep sleep in addition to maintaining a consistent overall time slept.

Take a Vitamin D Supplement

Studies have shown that taking a vitamin D supplement can also help alleviate some depression symptoms. Since people experiencing SAD may have low vitamin D levels, it may be a good idea to try taking a vitamin D supplement. Vitamin D supplements are widely available at drugstores and grocery stores, and they can help you combat the lack of sunlight experienced in the colder months. Consult with your doctor if a vitamin D supplement will be right for you.

Stay active

It can be easy to want to move less when the weather is colder and rainier. However, sticking to a consistent exercise routine can help you boost serotonin levels and also sleep better during the night. Bundle up to take long walks with your loved ones, play in the snow, and go on long runs. You may find this decreases your sleep onset times, and helps you better stick to a normal sleep schedule.

If the above tips don’t work, you may want to try therapy or ask your doctor about medication

If these tips and good sleep hygiene don’t work, antidepressant medication and talk therapy have been shown to relieve SAD symptoms since it is a type of depression. Discuss with your healthcare professional to assess if this option is right for you.

They key takeaway

Individuals experiencing SAD symptoms can feel as if the winter months may never end. However, there are many ways to help alleviate your SAD symptoms such as light therapy, consistent sleep schedules, regular exercise, and vitamin D supplements. Overall, try and get as much light as you can, either from a light box or the sun, stay active, and maintain good sleep hygiene to help regulate your mood and symptoms.

Remember to be patient with yourself and spend time with friends and family during this time of the year to boost your mood and support your mental health. The winter months won’t last forever, so try your best to properly care for yourself if you notice any shifts in mood.

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