Now that it’s officially autumn, it’s getting close to the time of year when many people, approximately 10 million of them, are going to start feeling more depressed.
Seasonal affective disorder, commonly known as SAD, is a form of depression that affects people based on seasons. The majority of people with SAD become depressed in autumn and winter, with the symptoms lessening or disappearing in spring or summer. The symptoms start out mildly at the beginning of the season and then gets worse as the season progresses.
While SAD can affect anyone, there are certain people who are more prone to it. Women are four times more likely than men to be diagnosed with it, and people with a family history of SAD or other forms of depression are more prone. Also, the farther you live from the equator, the more common SAD becomes.
Many of the symptoms of SAD are the same as for people suffering from year-round depression, such as: overwhelming feelings of sadness, low energy, feeling hopeless, difficulty concentrating, loss of interest in things you previously loved, changes in appetite, problems sleeping, or thoughts of death or suicide.
However, there are symptoms specific to SAD, and if you suffer from it in autumn/winter or spring/summer. Here are those symptoms, from the Mayo Clinic:
Fall and winter SAD
Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression, may include:
Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
Tiredness or low energy
Spring and summer SAD
Symptoms specific to summer-onset seasonal affective disorder, sometimes called summer depression, may include
Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
Agitation, anxiety, or violent behavior
Causes of SAD
While, like depression, the root cause of what causes SAD and why only certain people suffer from it is unknown, there are a number of factors that can contribute. The most prevalent are the changes to your serotonin and melatonin levels.
Serotonin and melatonin are both important chemicals produced naturally in your body.
Serotonin, also called 5-hydroxytryptamine, is found in your brain, bowels, and blood platelets. Your body’s levels of serotonin can increase due to exercise and diet, along with light levels. Low levels of serotonin are linked to depression, as the chemical is responsible for regulating mood, sleep, memory, and more.
You know that feeling after working out when you feel amazing and invincible? That’s serotonin. A deficiency in serotonin has a number of symptoms, such as
- bad moods
- poor memory
- cravings for sweet or starchy foods
Melatonin is a hormone produced by your pineal gland that aids in sleeping well and regularly. According to the National Sleep Foundation,
“During the day the pineal is inactive. When the sun goes down and darkness occurs, the pineal is ‘turned on’ by the SCN [suprachiasmatic nucleaus, an area of the brain] and begins to actively produced melatonin, which is released into the blood.”
Bright lights (such as those fluorescent lights you work under) and blue light (from your phone or computer screens) both suppress the production of melatonin. There are a number of ways that you can increase your melatonin levels at night.
The most obvious way is to turn off your technology an hour before going to bed. Blue light is super harmful to your ability to sleep, and we all spend too much time on our phones anyway. Turn them off and read a book before bed. There are also special glasses that you can buy that block out harmful lights.
The most popular way to increase melatonin levels, however, is to take it as a supplement. Melatonin supplements can be purchased over-the-counter and from online retailers such as Amazon and Wal-Mart. It’s generally considered safe, although there can be side-effects. While it can really help some people sleep better, it’s a bad choice for others.
To give you an example, I’ll share the effects that melatonin supplements have on both myself and my boyfriend.
I take melatonin a couple of times per week, on those days when I can’t fall asleep by other means. I’ll take two gummies about an hour before sleep, and by the time that hour is up, I’m falling into a blissful slumber.
When my boyfriend takes melatonin, however, it does help him fall asleep, but when he wakes up the next morning, his entire day is ruined by a “melatonin hangover.” He’s groggy for the entire day and has trouble focusing. We’ve even tried cutting his dose in half, and it still has the same effects.
If you have trouble sleeping and want to give melatonin a try, by all means go for it. Just remember that it isn’t for everyone. Some common side-effects of taking supplemental melatonin include drowsiness, headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Also, it’s not safe to take melatonin if you have an autoimmune disease or are taking oral contraceptives (it reduces their effectiveness).
Natural Ways to Relieve SAD
While it typically isn’t possible to get over SAD on your own, there are a number of activities and habits you can take up in the autumn and winter to reduce the severity of your symptoms.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise causes your brain to release important chemicals (such as serotonin) that promote your mood. Plus, exercise has so many other great benefits, like increased brainpower, weight loss, higher energy levels, and reduced risks of chronic diseases.
- Light. One of the treatments for SAD is the use of light to improve your mood. While going outside and getting natural sunlight is the best choice, that’s a lot harder to do in the winter. Fortunately, there are countless lamps made specifically to mimic natural light. Sitting near one of these lamps will improve your mood during those darker times. Very Well Mind has put together a wonderful list of some of your best options.
- Diet. Studies have shown that foods high in a chemical call tryptophans can lead to improved mood. Here’s a list of foods high in tryptophans that you might want to add to your diet when you normally experience SAD. As you can see, there are a lot of different options, so everyone should be able to incorporate at least a few of these into their diet.
- Poultry (chicken, turkey, and goose)
- Seeds & nuts
- Soy products
- Milk and cheese
- Aromatherapy. Essential oils are great for relieving stress. This is one option that I can personally vouch for. I used to work in the spa industry, and I learned to use various essential oils to produce the desired effects that I wanted. One of my favorite, not related to SAD but still useful, is the energizing effects of grapefruit and rosemary essential oils blended together into a diffuser. Here’s a list of four essential oils that might help relieve symptoms of SAD.
- Routine. Sticking to a regular schedule, even when you don’t feel like it, has the benefit of teaching your body when it’s time to sleep or eat. SAD can lead to insomnia and weight gain, and having specific times when you do these things can lessen the effects.
- Journaling. I’ve written on this blog before about journaling and the effect it can have on your life and mood. In my own experience with depression, journaling can provide a necessary outlet to get your thoughts out of your head and onto paper, where you can better analyze your thoughts and deal with them. I like to journal in the evening before I go to bed, as a sort of “brain dump” to help me sleep well, instead of worrying about everything that happened that day.
Seeking Professional Help
Sometimes, home remedies aren’t going to be enough, and that’s okay. You need to take your mental health just as seriously as your physical health.
If you start to have feelings associated with depression or SAD, please seek out your doctor or a psychologist. They’ll start off by doing a few tests to make sure something else isn’t going on, such as an underlying health problem. Once that’s ruled out, your doctor will do a psychological evaluation to determine if you have SAD.
Once you’re diagnosed, your doctor will recommend treatments or medications for you. For treatment options, they might recommend light therapy (phototherapy) or traditional talk therapy (psychotherapy). When it comes to medication, there are a number of options, including bupropion (which I take myself and has improved my energy levels) and SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, aka anti-depressants).
I would like to reiterate here that there is nothing wrong with taking anti-depressants or going to therapy. It drives me crazy that there is still a stigma in some communities over seeking help for mental health. If you are feeling depressed, please seek help.
In the end, seasonal affective disorder is a real and very serious disease. If you find that yourself or loved ones are exhibiting any of the symptoms listed above, please consider getting help.