While we often hear of clinical depression, we rarely hear of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a type of depression that tends to be affected by the time of the year and the weather. The symptoms usually occur during the fall and/or early winter and they improve during spring and summer.
Typical symptoms of SAD
- Sad and low mood
- Feeling hopeless
- Low energy
- Increased appetite
- Weight gain
- Cravings especially for food high in carbohydrates
- Increased sleep or hypersomnia
- Decreased interest in activities we used to enjoy
It is important to note that with the cold weather and reduced sunlight, we often experience mood fluctuations and some appetite and sleep changes. SAD, however, is a more severe condition whereby the symptoms cause significant distress and interfere with our daily functioning such as work, school or personal life. Also, if the symptoms become severe and intense, suicidal thoughts and significant disruption in our daily activities can occur.
While no specific cause of SAD is known, studies have found some specific factors that could contribute to SAD. For instance, the reduced sunlight might affect our biological or internal clock (circadian rhythm) that plays a role in when we sleep and when we wake up. The disruption of the circadian rhythm, in turn, could lead to symptoms of depression. Reduced sunlight can also drop the level of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects our mood, in turn, leading to symptoms of depression. The balance of melatonin, a natural hormone helping to regulate other hormones and the body’s circadian rhythm, can also be disrupted by the reduced sunlight and change in season. This disruption, in turn, can affect our mood.
A number of treatments have been found helpful in the treatment of SAD. Phototherapy, light therapy, which involves exposure to a specialized light therapy box, has been found effective. Consulting with your doctor is important to ensure it is the right treatment for you. Psychological treatment such as evidence-based cognitive behavioural therapy and pharmacotherapy have also been found helpful.
In addition to those treatments, various other coping strategies could be implemented to cope with mood fluctuations, decreased energy, and sleep and appetite changes during winter seasons:
- Avoiding social withdrawal and social isolation; staying active, going out and engaging in regular physical exercise; and keeping our regular daily activities are all very important.
- It is important to go out even during cloudy weather as the outdoor light can be beneficial.
- Sitting close to windows at home and/or at work, opening the blinds and curtains can also help make the environment brighter.
- Maintaining a healthy diet also helps our sleep and mood and energy level.
- It might help to consult with your health care professional to determine if any specific nutrients or supplements could be helpful.