Do you struggle with feelings of sadness or hopelessness as the days grow shorter and colder?
As we head into the winter months, many people in the northern hemisphere will experience symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This is a type of major depression that follows the seasons — occurring most often in the winter though it can also occur in the summer.
(According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), SAD is now referred to as Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. But in this article, we will refer to it as SAD, since it’s still the more commonly used name.)
It’s estimated that about 5% of adults in the U.S. experience SAD, and symptoms typically last about 40% of the year. SAD is more common in people who live farther from the equator.
Causes of SAD
It’s believed that SAD may be caused by a biochemical imbalance in the brain, triggered by shorter days and less sunlight in the winter.
Research suggests that sunlight helps regulate molecules that help us maintain normal levels of serotonin (a feel-good neurotransmitter). In people with SAD, this regulation does not work properly, leading to lower serotonin levels.
Other studies suggest that people with SAD make too much melatonin — a hormone that plays a significant role in regulating a typical sleep-wake cycle. Overproduction of melatonin can create excessive sleepiness.
Another idea is that lower levels of vitamin D — due to less sunlight — may also play a role in SAD, as vitamin D is needed for serotonin production.
In addition, as the days get shorter, we experience a shift in our body’s internal “clock” which can make us feel disconnected from our previous daily schedule.
Symptoms of SAD
The symptoms of SAD are similar to those of major depressive disorder.
The symptoms may include the following: (Not every person will experience all of these symptoms.)
- Low mood for most of the day, nearly every day.
- Appetite or weight changes.
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities.
- Sleeping difficulties.
- Low energy or fatigue.
- Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Lack of concentration.
- Suicidal or death-related thoughts.
For people with winter-pattern SAD, symptoms may include:
- Weight gain/ overeating (may crave carbohydrates).
- Social withdrawal.
People with summer-pattern SAD are more likely to show these symptoms:
- Low appetite/ weight loss.
- Agitation or restlessness.
Tips for coping with SAD
There are several ways to help cope with the symptoms of SAD.
If your depression is severe and/or affecting your daily life, it’s important to see a doctor. Many people experience relief with medication, cognitive therapy, or non-invasive brain stimulation — which may include transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and theta-burst stimulation (TBS).
Below are tips you can do at home.
Physical activity has long been recommended for boosting mental health. Research shows that physical activity can help reduce SAD symptoms and improve mood and energy.
A Harvard study found that greater levels of physical activity can significantly lower the odds of depression, even among people who are genetically susceptible to the illness. According to the researchers, engaging in about 35 minutes of physical activity every day may help people reduce their risk and protect against future depression episodes.
Light therapy has been an important treatment for SAD since the 1980s. In light therapy, you sit in front of a very bright light box (10,000 lux) designed to substitute for the diminished natural sunlight in the winter time. You would do this for 30-45 minutes, often first thing in the morning while symptoms last.
Getting the right nutrition and staying away from sugar and refined carbs is extremely important when it comes to mental health. One study found that people who ate the most whole foods had a lower chance of depression compared to those who ate the least amount of whole foods. The findings also show that people who ate more processed foods were at greater risk of depression.
Supplements and herbs
Supplements and herbs may help with some symptoms of SAD. Siesta Botanicals carries ashwagandha, rhodiola rosea, and holy basil (more info in these below the list):
- Omega-3 fatty acids/ Fish oil: Research has shown that the anti-inflammatory properties of fish oil can help reduce depression.
- Amino acids: L-Tyrosine (precursor to dopamine); L-Tryptophan or 5-HTP (precursor to serotonin).
- N-acetyl cysteine (NAC): NAC is the main antioxidant in the brain. Earlier (2008) research suggests that NAC may help with depressive symptoms.
- Ashwagandha: May help with both anxiety and depressive symptoms.
- Rhodiola rosea: Research suggests that rhodiola may exert anti-stress and antidepressant properties.
- Holy basil: One study found that 500 mg of holy basil per day helped participants feel less stressed, depressed, and anxious and more social.
(Be sure to talk to your doctor before starting any new supplements or botanicals, especially if you’re on medication.)
Siesta Botanicals offers the following herbs:
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry, is an ancient Ayurvedic herb. It belongs to a class of medicinal herbs known as adaptogens and has been used for more than 3,000 years to help reduce stress, improve stamina and increase concentration levels.
Many of ashwagandha’s health benefits are attributed to its high levels of withanolides, hormone precursors that can convert into human physiological hormones to help bring balance to the body. Studies have shown that ashwagandha can help improve sleep and reduce stress.
For centuries, the adaptogen Rhodiola rosea has been used to help reduce stress and improve physical and mental performance. Rhodiola was also used to help treat headaches, hernias, “hysteria,” discharges and high-altitude sickness.
In clinical trials, rhodiola extract has also been shown to improve mild to moderate depression and generalized anxiety.
Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), or Tulsi, is often consumed as a potent stress reliever. Studies show that holy basil can improve mood, reduce fatigue and improve sleep.
Preclinical animal studies have shown that holy basil increases swimming survival times in mice and prevents stress-induced ulcers in rats. These anti-stress effects were found to be comparable to antidepressant drugs.