The days get shorter. The temperatures get cooler. You spend less time outside and there is less opportunity to soak up that Vitamin D your body and brain need.
Many people, especially those who are vulnerable to depression, can have symptoms relating to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) throughout the year. However, it is more commonly experienced in the fall and winter months.
“SAD is something people may experience during that particular time of year or season when there’s less sunlight,” said Palmetto Infusion Patient Advocate and Licensed Social Worker, Chrissie Jenkins. “It is certainly something that people who already struggle, unfortunately, with depressive tendencies may notice to be more pronounced and disruptive. They just have an extra challenging time during this season.”
Some symptoms of winter-pattern SAD, in addition to major depression symptoms, can include Oversleeping (hypersomnia); overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates; brain fog; weight gain; and social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”).
While scientists do not fully understand what causes SAD, there is a belief that lack of sunlight and its effects on Vitamin D levels and brain chemicals, such as serotonin and melatonin play a part, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Research suggests sunlight controls the levels of molecules that help maintain normal serotonin levels.1 Serotonin, of course, is the main neurotransmitter regulating mood. Research also suggests that in people with SAD, this regulation does not function properly, resulting in decreased levels during late fall and winter.
According to Jenkins, it is not just serotonin levels that take a hit from less sunlight, but also Vitamin D levels and melatonin. In addition to Vitamin D consumed with diet, the body produces Vitamin D when exposed to sunlight on the skin. With less daylight in the winter, people with SAD may have lower vitamin D levels, which may further hinder serotonin activity, according to NIMH.
Other research concludes there could be too much melatonin produced in those with SAD.2 Melatonin is a hormone that is central to maintaining the normal sleep-wake cycle. Overproduction of melatonin can increase sleepiness.
There are a few options you can consider to mitigate symptoms.
- Talk to your doctor. Holistic approaches do not work for everyone. If you find you cannot manage symptoms of SAD and have consistent low mood, talk to your doctor about the possibility of starting an antidepressant.
- Go for a brisk walk. If you are able, take your lunch break outside and go for a walk around the block. If you are unable to get outdoors, try using a treadmill or other exercise equipment set close to a window.
- Try box light therapy. “These are nonmedical devices that can be purchased rather affordably online,” said Jenkins. “When you do not have the opportunity to get as much natural light, this device helps simulate a light like natural light, which will help boost those chemical levels. You can do this in the comfort of your own home, too!”
- Manage your time. “The best advice I can give is to be very protective and mindful of the value and quality of your time and wellbeing,” said Jenkins. “Going into something, like holiday gatherings, you must be realistic with yourself and work at managing and prioritizing increased expectations. For instance, you could have been invited to four or five holiday events. Instead of burning yourself out by going to all of them, pick just one or two that you feel are the most meaningful and purposeful. This way you are not overcommitting yourself to things that may end up taking a toll on your comfort level, energy reserves, and life satisfaction.”
- Be mindful of your food and alcohol consumption. Typically, around the holiday season, there are more opportunities to overeat and consume more carbohydrates, sweets, and alcohol than you may normally. “It’s okay to enjoy yourself and indulge with special sweet treats but try to be mindful of moderation and balance while you celebrate,” said Jenkins.
“The amount of sleep we get does greatly affect our mood and patience. The types of food we consume, such as lots of refined sugar, can give us these hard crashes that leave us feeling depleted and miserable,” said Jenkins. “There are many practical tips that we can all easily practice to minimize the effects of SAD. These are just some of the tools to consider applying.”
While SAD can disrupt your normal routine for a few months if you are experiencing these symptoms consistently or any symptoms associated with depression, contact your physician for help.
If you are a patient of Palmetto Infusion or AccuRX Infusion and are experiencing a need or area of concern, Chrissie Jenkins is available to listen to and offer guidance, support, and direction. You can contact her confidentially at no charge by calling 843-314-5908 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Lambert GW, Reid C, Kaye DM, Jennings GL, Esler MD. Effect of sunlight and season on serotonin turnover in the brain. Lancet. 2002 Dec 7;360(9348):1840-2. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(02)11737-5. PMID: 12480364.
2. Melrose S. Seasonal Affective Disorder: An Overview of Assessment and Treatment Approaches. Depress Res Treat. 2015;2015:178564. doi: 10.1155/2015/178564. Epub 2015 Nov 25. PMID: 26688752; PMCID: PMC4673349.