This week, we’ve turned our clocks back one hour for Daylight Savings. In New England, this means that while the sun rises earlier, it also sets at 4:30 PM! Shorter days of sunlight naturally change our daily routines and habits, but they can also have an impact on our moods.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is directly caused by changes in the seasons. It plays havoc with our moods because it affects our biological clock, which controls our sleep/awake pattern and circadian rhythms. This disrupt causes problems with our serotonin level: a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects our mood. Low melatonin levels due to less sunlight play a role in sleep patterns and mood. Our age can also have an impact; people between the ages of 15 and 55 tend to have a higher risk of winter SAD. Living far from the equator also appears to be a large factor, due to decreased sunlight during the winter.
All of these things result in moodiness, disinterest, difficulty concentrating, and exhaustion. The challenge in diagnosing SAD is that a lot of these symptoms are familiar to all of us. We all can feel tired, gloomy, distracted, and unmotivated at times. That’s a part of being human! It is also natural for our lifestyles to change slightly with the seasons. We recommend that anyone who thinks they may have SAD keep track of their habits and symptoms everyday by using a journal. This will be not only helpful for you to recognize patterns in your moods, but it will also help your physician understand your situation and assist you.
Some writing tips: If you are starting a journal to help you determine whether or not you may have SAD, then you’ll need to keep track of things like weather, daily activities, general mood, productivity, diet (food/beverages consumed that day), and social interactions. You may also want to note things like medications, vitamins, and/or supplements. Once you start logging these details, you will make it easier for you and for your doctor to determine whether or not you are experiencing a depressive disorder only during specific times of the year.
In addition to the treatment plan your physician has recommend for seasonal affective disorder, we suggest trying the following:
Make your environment sunnier and brighter. Where do you spend the most time indoors, and is that place well-lit? If you have a home office, try to rearrange your space so that you are in the brightest area. Move any plants or items from the window that may be partially blocking the light.
Step outside. If you work in an office, don’t eat your lunch at your desk. Go outside and reset. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can have a big impact, especially if you’re outside within two hours of getting up in the morning.
Exercise regularly. Physical activity helps relieve stress and anxiety, both of which can increase SAD symptoms. Sometimes we get so worked up about working out that we end up not exercising at all. We actually don’t have to do much to benefit from exercise; just a short walk or quick at-home activities can have a big impact.
Self-care. We are firm believers in self-care. Whether you practice self-care through holistic/natural methods like yoga, meditation, or acupuncture, or through relaxing activities like reading or watching movies, or through crafts and fun hobbies, we support your intentional actions to strengthen yourself and meet your baseline needs.
Light therapy is one of the first-line treatments for fall-onset SAD, and people with SAD tend to notice an immediate impact after only a few treatments. It works by resetting your biological clock. Light boxes use fluorescent lights that are brighter than indoor lights but not as bright as sunlight. Ultraviolet lights, full-spectrum lights, tanning lamps, and heat lamps are not recommended.
Light therapy is usually prescribed for 30 minutes to 2 hours a day. The amount of time depends on how strong the light is and on how long you have been practicing this treatment.
Bright Light Therapy, also called phototherapy, is a SAD management method where you sit a few feet from a special light therapy box with your eyes open but not looking at the light source. You can read, eat, work, etc. while being exposed to a bright light that mimics natural outdoor light and seems to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood.
Dawn Simulation. For this treatment, a dim light goes on in the morning while you sleep and it gets brighter over time, like a sunrise. Some studies have shown this to be an even more effective treatment for people with SAD. Before you purchase a light therapy box or consider any of these methods, you should talk with your doctor and ensure that you’re managing symptoms in the most safe and effective way possible.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is currently not categorized as its own mood disorder, but is rather is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. Because of this, some people choose to take supplements that are recommended for depression treatment.
St. John’s wort. This herb is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat depression in the United States, but it’s a popular depression treatment in Europe. It may be helpful if you have mild or moderate depression, but St. John’s wort should be used with caution. It can interfere with a number of medications, including antidepressants, HIV/AIDS medications, birth control pills, drugs to prevent organ rejection after an organ transplant, blood-thinning medications, and chemotherapy drugs.
SAMe. Pronounced “sam-E,” this dietary supplement is a synthetic form of a chemical that occurs naturally in the body. The name is short for S-adenosyl–L-methionine (es-uh-den-o-sul-el-muh-THIE-o-neen). Like St. John’s wort, SAMe isn’t approved by the FDA to treat depression in the United States, but it is a popular depression treatment in Europe. SAMe may be effective, but more research is needed. SAMe may trigger mania in people with bipolar disorder.
Melatonin. This dietary supplement is a synthetic form of a hormone occurring naturally in the body that helps regulate mood. A change in the season to less light may change the level of melatonin in your body. Taking melatonin could decrease winter-onset SAD, but more research is needed. Safety in children or with long-term use in adults has not been determined.
Omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats are found in cold-water fish, flaxseed, flax oil, walnuts and some other foods. Omega-3 supplements are being researched as a possible treatment for depression. This is in part because studies have shown that cultures that tend to consume larger amounts of fish (such as Icelandic and Japanese) also tend to be have a low levels of SAD. While considered generally safe, in high doses, omega-3 supplements may interact with other medications. More research is needed to determine if eating foods with omega-3 fatty acids can help relieve depression.
There are lots of steps that you can take to manage seasonal affective disorder that we would recommend to anyone looking to improve their overall self-care methods.
Stick to your treatment plan. Take medications or supplements as directed and attend therapy appointments as scheduled.
Take care of yourself. Get enough rest and take time to relax. Participate in an exercise program or engage in regular physical activity. Make healthy choices for meals and snacks.
Practice stress management. Learn techniques to manage your stress more effectively. Unmanaged stress can spiral into unhealthy thoughts and behaviors.
Socialize. When you’re feeling down, it can be hard to engage in social activities. Make an effort to connect with people you enjoy being around. Commit to your hangout plans and follow through.
Take a trip. We understand that this may not be feasible for everyone, but if it is within your budget, we recommend planning winter vacations in sunny, warm locations if you have winter SAD or in cooler locations if you have summer SAD.
There’s no known way to prevent the development of seasonal affective disorder. However, if you take steps early on to manage symptoms, you may be able to prevent them from getting worse over time.
Some people find it helpful to begin treatment before symptoms would normally begin (perhaps around the end of the summer for winter SAD) and then continue treatment past the time symptoms would normally go away. Other people need continuous treatment to prevent symptoms from returning.
We want to reassure people that Seasonal Affective Disorder is extremely common, and that it is always better to talk to your doctor or therapist about changes in mood or prolonged feelings of depression, as opposed to struggling alone.
Do you have any personal experience with SAD? What treatments or lifestyle changes have been most helpful? Let us know in the comments!