Many of us (myself included) struggle to adjust to a loss of day light after we “fall back” into Standard Time for the fall and winter. Leaving work in the dark, getting less time outside in the sun, and feeling rushed in the evenings can all contribute to a sense of dreariness this time of year. Also, for me personally — I really hate being cold. But hating being cold isn’t enough to make a person SAD. Let’s get to the bottom of this together.
Defining Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Some people are more susceptible to the change in weather than others, but we all feel it from time to time in the winter. Even the snow bunnies feel it. A more severe version of the winter blues could the result of a biochemical change, resulting in Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
The Mayo Clinic defines Season Affective Disorder (SAD) as “a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons … a subtype of major depression.’
Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms:
- Tiredness or low energy
- Problems getting along with other people
- Hypersensitivity to rejection
- Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
These symptoms are pretty similar (if not the same as) other forms of depression, and just like depression, they’re more likely to affect women than men. But why are they grabbing folks in winter who are otherwise non-depressive at other points during the year? What’s so special about WINTER?
Why am I Sad in the Winter?
A few things are happening in our bodies (and in our lives) this time of year that could contribute to SAD — or even a less severe version of the “winter blues.” As I hinted above, a lack of sun exposure directly relates to a few of these, which I’ll explain as best I can.
- A disruption in circadian rhythm (our body’s biological clock)
- A drop in vitamin D levels
- A reduction in exposure to negative ions (this one isn’t conclusive)
- Cold and Flu season
- Stress (holidays, family, kids home on break, etc — this one doesn’t really need explaining, does it?)
Less exposure to sunlight means less vitamin D synthesis, which can sometimes mean a change in mood and energy for those who are sensitive. In a meta-analysis to review the connection between vitamin D deficiency and depression, researchers found a consistent correlation between low vitamin D concentration and depression in adults.
Combating the lack of sunlight with vitamin D3 supplements is a good idea for most of us here in the SF Bay, as we live far enough from the equator to be concerned about deficiency.
Circadian Rhythm (aka, our body’s biological clock)
The quantity and quality of light that enters our eyes (specifically the retina) affects our natural body clocks, and when the light changes, our energy levels, motivation, mood, and sleep patterns can all change with it.
Insufficient sunlight (entering through the eye) causes the brain to do extra work to produce melatonin, which is crucial in regulating sleep and has been linked to an increase in depressive symptoms. We want enough melatonin to get a good night’s sleep, not too much, which can prove problematic.
When we stop receiving a flood of bright light in the morning, our brains and bodies lag behind. Some people adjust quickly, some people have a harder time adjusting.
“The body clock takes its cue from sunlight, especially that in the morning. But as you get up into the northern-tier states, there’s a 4½ hour delay in sunrise in mid-winter versus the summer … in the middle portion of the U.S., there’s a two-hour difference … This difference is enough to affect circadian rhythm timing and throw the body clock out of sync.” (WebMD source)
Conclusion: The change in light is a major trigger for Seasonal Affective Disorder.
With sunlight in shorter supply during winter months, it’s important to get outside when the sun is out, to look up and soak in the rays. Take a brisk walk on your lunch break when the sun is at its highest.
If the sun does come out before you get to work every day, consider taking a walk first thing in the morning, and face the sunrise as much as possible. Do what you can to spend time outside, even if it’s chilly.
But sometimes that’s not enough, and we need to take extra measures to get adequate light into our brains.
One of the most effective treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorders is light therapy. Using a special light box (or sun box) that contains special light bulbs that mimic the sunlight can activate the parts of the brain that regulate our body clocks. Facing a sun box in the morning for as little as 30 minutes — say, while you’re eating breakfast or getting ready for work — can have a dramatic impact on your mood.
According to Michael Terman, PhD, director of the Winter Depression Program at New York Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University Medical Center, using a sun box “keep[s] your body clock on its springtime cycle during the winter, and that’s how the depressive symptoms are lifted.” Pretty crazy right?
I’ve actually been doing this for about a week now and can already tell the difference. Maybe it’s too soon to tell, but I definitely feel more myself after using the one linked above while I’m doing my hair and make up in the morning.
Warning: there can be side effects to using a light box, and since so many of my readers come here for skin issues, I need to be clear: If you take medication that makes your skin sensitive to light, including skin medications, some anti-inflammatory medications, and certain herbs, talk to your dermatologist or PCP before starting light therapy.
If you have bipolar disorder, light therapy could trigger mania, hyperactivity, or agitation. Talk to your doctor before giving it a try.
Ions are atoms with an electrical charge (positive or negative). Negative ions are found in greater concentrations around waterfalls, mountains, and beaches — natural places, typically large bodies of water. Decades of research has shown a correlation between increased negative ions and increased serotonin.
You can reap the benefits of negative ions by frequenting the environments where concentrations are naturally high, but in the winter, these places are often inaccessible. One winter option is to actually purchase a negative ionizer (affiliate link) for your home. Before you do that, take note that research on the efficacy of negative ions to reduce depression or anxiety is not conclusive. It’s a hypothesis that’s been tested with varying results. Give the linked research a look before you purchase.
Cold and Flu Season
In working on this blog post I actually learned something new myself. In the wake of a viral infection, it’s common to feel depressive symptoms. Did you know this? I sure didn’t, but it makes a lot of sense. When your immune system is in high gear, so is inflammation in the body and brain — this is the natural progression our bodies go through to fight infection. It’s a good thing in the end, but it can sure make us feel like crap. Here’s a brief explanation from Psychology Today:
“Our immune, neurologic, and psychological systems are closely intertwined. When there is a foreign invader in your body, like the influenza virus, your cells produce proinflammatory cytokines, non-antibody proteins that activate and organize your body’s immune response (Raison 2006). These chemical proteins circulate throughout your body and communicate with your brain, which in turn produces its own cytokines. These brain cytokines lead to fever, fatigue, depressed mood, lack of appetite, lack of motivation, social withdrawal, poor concentration, and altered sleeping patterns. In other words, the physical sickness caused by the inflammatory response significantly overlaps with depressive symptoms.”
We learned from my series on gut health that inflammation is very closely tied to mental health, sleep, and stress. Depression is correlated with leaky brain (a permeability that can both cause inflammation and be caused by inflammation). So it shouldn’t have surprised me that an inflammatory immune response would trigger depressive symptoms.
Take Care of Yourself this Winter
This time of year can be brutal — I’ve already had two colds this year and December has only just begun. Take care of yourself by practicing good hand washing hygiene, staying away from sick friends, and staying home if you do come down with something. You can also boost your immune system by eating foods rich in vitamin C and zinc, avoiding inflammatory foods, exercising, getting enough sleep, and avoiding unnecessary stress.
Remember, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression — it can be tempting to isolate, to curl up with a blanket and Netflix, to eat too much raw cookie dough or an entire bag of chips when you’re feeling down. Do your best to resist these temptations: find support in your social network rather than trying to do it all on your own. Take advantage of any resources you might have to help you, and don’t be afraid to ask.
If you’re susceptible to Seasonal Affective Disorder, these steps, in addition to experimenting with light therapy and/or negative ion therapy could make the difference for you this winter. Don’t forget to talk to your doctor before embarking on the light therapy journey if you have any relevant diagnoses, and take care of yourself.
FTC DISCLOSURE: This is not a sponsored post but I will receive compensation if you use the links in this post to purchase Bone Broths Co. bone broth. I’m proud to call this company a partner and work with them to bring bone broth to as many people as possible. All opinions are my own.