If the short days and worsening weather that come with the cold weather season sap your energy and make you feel blue, then you’ve got the classic symptoms of the seasonal mood problem called Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a type of depression triggered by the change in weather that happens in winter.
Why do some people suffer from SAD?
Experts aren’t sure, but a few believe that the seasonal changes as we enter the winter months can disrupt our 24-hour biological clock regulating how we function during the waking and sleeping hours: our circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is what makes us feel energized and alert or drowsy at the right times.
Another idea is that the shift to shorter days can disrupt crucial hormones like serotonin and melatonin, which are responsible for regulating sleep, mood, and sensations of well-being. The pituitary gland in your brain secretes melatonin which is needed to adjust your physical response to day and night.
Even though we’re surrounded by light at all times in our technological world, our brains still react strongly to natural light. When your environment begins to stay dark longer with the advent of winter and your brain isn’t producing enough melatonin, then getting to sleep and waking up become challenging. Being too drowsy and continually feeling tired are the classic symptoms of SAD.
Roughly 4 – 6 percent of Americans suffer from SAD every year, according to a report from the American Academy of Family Physicians.
As many as 20% of US residents may deal with a mild form of SAD every year that begins when the days get colder and shorter. The people most likely to experience SAD are women and young people, also those who live a significant distance from the equator. People with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or depression could be especially susceptible.
So, if you have a brain that doesn’t secrete enough melatonin or that isn’t responding readily to a healthy circadian rhythm you could have the biology that predisposes you to SAD.
How to Tell if You Have Seasonal Affective Disorder
Check out this list of symptoms to find out if you could be suffering SAD this winter:
Fatigue and Listlessness
Persistent fatigue, consistently low energy levels, and frequently oversleeping can all be signs of SAD. While someone dealing with a simple case of the winter doldrums might have trouble waking up or just getting out of bed to start the day, a person with seasonal affective disorder may literally not be able to get to work on time.
Are You Irritable, Anxious, Easily Overwhelmed or Just Moody all the Time?
Routinely feeling overwhelmed is another sign to watch out for. If tasks that you usually perceive as easy or at worse mildly irritating (but still manageable), like household repairs, getting to work, attending meetings, or even walking the dog suddenly become overwhelming challenges, it’s a reliable indicator that you’re dealing with a case of SAD.
You Can’t Concentrate
Your ability to think clearly can also become impaired when you’re dealing with SAD. While it’s hard to notice if you’re not thinking as clearly as usual when your brain could already be impaired by SAD, you need to keep an eye out for things like:
- Decreased ability to concentrate
- Reduced productivity at work
- Less creativity
- Inability to complete tasks on time (or at all)
So, if you suddenly feel like you’re feeling unusually fuzzy, are having trouble focusing, and completing routine tasks is becoming an issue, take stock of any other symptoms and consider whether SAD could be the cause.
Weight Gain and Increased Appetite
It’s normal to put on 5 to 6 pounds over the cold weather season, but when you’re suffering from full-blown SAD – serious carbohydrate cravings and an increased appetite, in general, could see some people gain more than 10 pounds.
Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder
As bad as it sounds – there are things that you can do to mitigate the symptoms of SAD and get yourself back on track.
Watch Your Diet
Nations that eat the most sugar have significantly higher rates of depression. Scientists theorize that it’s because sugar hinders our body’s ability to deal with stress and may also worsen feelings of anxiety. Often people crave sweet and starchy food in the winter because it’s an easy way to get a quick (but temporary) energy boost. But sugary treats will just leave you feeling as tired as before once the sugar rush passes. Instead, focus on eating healthy, nutritionally complete meals that include healthy amounts of fat, protein, and fiber.
A good start is by not giving in to your carb cravings. Not only will an excess of starches and sugars in your diet play havoc with your blood sugar levels (exacerbating mood issues), but watching the numbers creep up every week on your scale is guaranteed to make you feel worse about everything.
Don’t Stop Exercising
Exercise will always be an essential part of living a healthy lifestyle, but in this case, exercise has added benefits beyond staying fit. Exercising will elevate your mood by making your body produce endorphins, and it will help your brain to better adjust to the shorter days and colder weather.
Get Up Early and Keep Busy
This could be the toughest recommendation, but sometimes the best approach to SAD is to hit it head on. Don’t dawdle in bed wallowing in how lousy you feel, jump out of bed early and keep yourself busy. Start taking dance classes, learn a new language, join a Yoga studio – but keep involved with your life and socialize. The excitement of trying new things can go a long way toward improving your mood.
Get As Much Daylight as Possible
Starting in the morning, try to expose your eyes to as much daylight as possible. Make sure you open all the curtains and throw up all your blinds as soon as you awake. While at work ask to be relocated to a desk near a window if you aren’t near one already. The exposure to daylight will help your body clock reset itself and possibly mitigate many of the uncomfortable symptoms of SAD.
Schedule a Vacation to Beat SAD
The majority of people suffering from SAD report that their symptoms improve considerably after taking a vacation trip to a sunny and warm location. If you already know from experience that the change of seasons is going to hit you harder than most – arrange you vacation schedule around the point during the winter when SAD makes you feel worst. The anticipation of your upcoming trip combined with the happy memories you’ll have when you get back will go far in making winter a less dreary time for you.
Consider Light Therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Studies suggest that using light boxes can help up to 50% of individuals who are suffering from SAD. The frequency of light emitted from this kind of device will help your body wake up better in the morning and clears the sleep hormone melatonin that our bodies make to keep us asleep come night. Light therapy is fantastic for people looking for a quick fix: because studies conclude that light therapy can lift your mood after just a few days.