Winter got you feeling down? Colder temperatures and more time spent inside aren’t the only factors contributing to a real medical condition called seasonal affective disorder. Seasonal depression returns every winter for as many as 20 million Americans and can contribute to higher rates of depression all year long.
Less access to sunlight, stress, and nutrient deficiencies play a role, so let’s find out how you can be proactive and better equip your physical and mental resilience to beat winter depression so you can do more than just bide your time until spring.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of mood disorder sometimes called seasonal depression or winter depression. It results in depressed thoughts which reoccur during roughly the same season every year. Doctors also refer to it as Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Pattern (1).
Those who experience winter depression commonly report depressive symptoms, but can also feel anxious, listless, and experience changes in eating and sleeping patterns.
If this describes you, reach out to a CentreSpringMD practitioner for a virtual visit, or by calling (404) 814-9808
Seasonal affective disorder can last for several months, and begins and ends at about the same time every year. The most difficult months for those who experience SAD are usually January and February (2).
Seasonal affective disorder creates some very distressing symptoms that can interfere with everyday life, but with functional medicine it can be treated by supporting the right systems.
Symptoms of Seasonal Depression
Seasonal affective disorder often varies from mild to severe and is characterized by the following symptoms (2):
- Sadness or depressed mood
- Lack of interest in activities you normally enjoy
- Increased appetite, sugar cravings
- Excessive sleep
- Fatigue (despite sleeping more)
- Changes in cognition (brain fog, difficulty remembering things)
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Of course, if you or a loved one experience severe symptoms, never hesitate to reach out for help from those who can help you heal. SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
What Causes Seasonal Depression?
Research shows a link between decreased sunlight and a change in circadian rhythm affecting both melatonin and serotonin levels. Serotonin is one major brain chemical that regulates your mood, and melatonin is produced in the evening to help induce sleep.
A shift in daily routine and circadian rhythm may disrupt the function of these messengers and create feelings of unease or changes in mood.
Less sunlight exposure can also decrease levels of vitamin D in the vast majority of our population already deficient in this crucial nutrient. Anywhere from 50-90% of vitamin D comes from exposure to sunlight, and the remainder from diet (3).
Adequate levels of vitamin D are necessary for stabilizing mood, reducing inflammation, and maintaining immune health and cognition.
Winter Knocks Your Internal Clock Out of Balance
As days become shorter, fewer daylight hours and less sunlight in winter causes many people to feel out of sync with their circadian rhythm, or biological clock. Many physiological functions follow a rhythm—meaning they cycle in 24-hour period. This includes sleeping, waking, eating, and the release of certain hormones..
This circadian rhythm is regulated by your genes, but it’s strongly influenced by environmental cues like changes in light and darkness. Cells in the retina of your eye respond to changes in light, and they signal parts of the brain which control your body’s natural rhythms.
Changes in Melatonin and Serotonin
One of the functions this part of the brain regulates is the production of melatonin and serotonin. Melatonin levels normally rise at night, inducing sleep, and fall in response to morning sunlight.
According to one hypothesis, the internal clocks of people who experience seasonal depression don’t adjust to winter’s changes in daylight hours.
Melatonin then remains elevated during waking hours, reducing energy and contributing to feelings of listlessness and low motivation.
SAD is more common in people who live further from the equator and are exposed to less sunlight during the winter months.
In addition, symptoms of SAD can also exacerbate poorer mental health, by withdrawing from activities which normally bring joy and purpose, or with increased carbohydrate cravings which create mood swings.
You can experience seasonal depression in the summer.
While most cases of SAD happen in the winter, some people can experience changes in mood during the summer as well.
During the summer, when sunlight is plentiful, some doctors believe this type of seasonal depression may be due to too much sunlight, instead of too little.
If you already experience depressive symptoms, or have a relative who’s been diagnosed with major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern, you may be at higher risk for developing some kind of seasonal depression, whether in the summer or winter.
Seasonal Depression Vs. Regular Depression
Is seasonal affective disorder the same as depression? The answer is… It depends. Some people only experience changes in mood associated with changes in seasons.
Seasonal depression shares some similarities with depression, but the biggest difference is that SAD will typically resolve once the weather warms and the seasons change.
Seasonal depression does however commonly progress into depression, but this can be mitigated with the right intervention by an integrative doctor and a trained therapist.
So how can you get ahead of your seasonal depression with the right intervention?
Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder with Integrative Medicine
While effective treatment for mood disorders should be individualized to each patient, here are some steps you can begin today to support better mental health.
Optimize Vitamin D
Vitamin D plays a crucial role in regulating mood.
Doctors estimate that almost 42% of the U.S. are deficient in vitamin D, and this doesn’t include those whose levels are less than optimal, but not low enough to be considered ‘deficient’ (4). This means that your body and mind will have trouble regulating mood even in the best of circumstances, and may not be able to hold up to longer time spent indoors during the gloomy months.
Vitamin D3 is the more active form, as vitamin D2 isn’t as readily absorbed by your body.
Eat More Fish
Fatty fish such as herring, mackerel, salmon, and others are packed with nutrition and inflammation-modulating omega-3 fats. Inflammation is a key cause of mood disorders, including depression.
Omega-3s help to decrease the production of proinflammatory cytokines such as TNF-alpha and Interleukin-6, which have been linked to depressive symptoms via direct effect upon the brain (5).
Research also suggests that a diet high in omega-3 fats can positively impact neurological function of the endocannabinoid system, a key component in maintaining balance within the body–a process known as homeostasis (6).
This process supports the healthy function of the happy neurotransmitter serotonin and dopamine.
Light It Up
Bright Light Therapy (BLT) for depression is a functional treatment that can help you manage seasonal symptoms of a depressed mood.
Because research shows the body’s use of serotonin is linked to seasonal depression, BLT may help correct the winter circadian rhythm changes or increase serotonin in the brain (7).
With the right light, patients with seasonal depression saw an improvement in their depressive scores after just 1 hour of light therapy (8).
Exercise has long been recognized as a substantial tool for better mental health, and research shows physical activity can reduce symptoms of depression.
In one study, just 30 minutes of treadmill walking for 10 consecutive days resulted in significantly reduced depressive symptoms in adults (9). Current guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week participating in activities like sports, strength training, or jogging, or walking.
Movement and exercise can promote healthy levels of serotonin throughout the day, in addition to releasing feel good endorphins which boost your mood.
There’s extensive research supporting the benefits of exercise on almost all body systems–mental health included!
Today, functional doctors are working to better understand the mechanisms behind all depressive disorders, including those which affect patients seasonally.
You can mitigate symptoms of seasonal depression with the whole-body interventions, and integrative medicine doctors can help you target both the physiological and environmental causes of seasonal affective disorder.
Are you one of nearly 10 million people in the U.S. who experiences seasonal depression? This year, work with a functional doctor at CentreSpringMD for holistic solutions in a compassionate and patient-centered environment.