Winter Blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder- Tips to Thrive in the Darker Colder Months
During the darker days of fall and winter, it is not uncommon for people to report feeling low energy, tired, and even “depressed”.
For many, it’s a natural response to shorter days and less sunlight, but for others, it can be a clinical form of depression called seasonal affective disorder. To help understand the difference between the winter blues and SAD, it is important to understand that our bodies are actually wired to slow down and rest more.
Though it may take more to rev your engine, the winter blues don’t typically affect your ability to enjoy life. While SAD is much more dramatic and is a condition to seek professional help for. The best metaphor for SAD is hibernation, unlike people with classical depression who may sleep less and eat less, people with SAD eat more and sleep more, they may feel flat or low but not necessarily sad
The most commonly reported SAD symptoms include significant fatigue, pervasively low or flat mood, loss of interest in activities, sleeping more than usual, craving and eating more starches and sweets, gaining at least 5 percent of body weight and difficulty concentrating. Most people experience SAD symptoms to a certain extent, especially at higher latitudes.
These individuals who do not meet diagnostic criteria for depression during the fall/winter months, but who experience mild to moderate symptoms during fall or winter, are considered to have a milder form of this disorder also known as subsyndromal SAD or the “winter blues.” With true SAD there is typically a history of depression at other times in the past but it is more severe seasonally.
Causes of SAD
The primary culprit of both states is the lower level of natural sunlight we are exposed to in the fall and winter. Less natural light contribute to the following problems:
- Circadian rhythm disruptions (our bodies internal clock) affecting cortisol and other hormones and neurotransmitters, which help control sleep-wake cycles
- Dips in the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin
- Altered melatonin levels, which also regulates sleep and mood
How To Trick Your Body Into Thinking It’s Still Summer
- Light therapy, which is essentially daily exposure to bright artificial light during the symptomatic months. Light therapy devices rigorously tested in clinical trials for SAD emit a controlled amount of cool, white fluorescent or full-spectrum light.
Light therapy can be particularly helpful in regulating the release of melatonin, which increases when the sun goes down. When undergoing light therapy, it is most effective when cycled like the sun (used early in the day) for a prescribed amount of time so you get the appropriate “dose”.
This will help the treatment, be most effective, while also limiting risk of potential side effects like agitation or headaches. According to the National Institutes of Health, the dose of light that has proved to be the most beneficial is 5000 lux hours per day, which could take the form of, for example, 10 000 lux for one-half hour each morning.
Most studies indicate that early morning treatment (before 8 am) is optimal. Clinical practice guidelines for SAD recommend the daily use of light therapy each year from the onset. An affordable (less than $100.00) option we love and use here in the office is the Happy light by Verilux. https://verilux.com/products/happylight-luxe
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy– working with a qualified mental health professional trained in CBT,a type of psychotherapy focused on correcting distorted thinking and skewed beliefs, equally as effective as light therapy while combining the two actually has a positive exponential effect.
- Nutritional: Low levels of Vitamin D were linked to seasonal affective disorder in the research reported in 2014 in the journal Medical Hypotheses. And a study published in 2014 the journal Nutrients found that people who took vitamin D supplements saw significant improvement in their depression.
It is good to know your levels going into the season and adjust your dose accordingly. It is not uncommon for people to need 5,000 to 10,000 IU daily in the winter.
- Amino acids that support serotonin and dopamine synthesis such as 5 HTP and tyrosine can really boost mood and energy in a gentle sustainable way.
- Herbs that boost mood and support cortisol response, two of our favorites here at Sage include Tusli or Holy Basil and Rhodiola. Both support the adrenal glands and give the immune system a boost. There are some great formulas out there that combine herbs, nutrients like B vitamins, and amino acids to give gentle yet effective support when we are feeling low. Can we link a couple of products we like here with a discount ???
Remember it is ok to take it easy, hunker down and hide out with a good book and warm fire sometimes. It is important to trust in your natural rhythms and adapt to the seasons as you are able. However, if you are one of those who winter really gets you down in the dumps, or you are concerned you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder, there are options for you.
Reach out to your care provider or give us a call here at Sage Integrative and we will help you with customized mood and energy support for the season.