4 Ways to Beat the Seasonal Blues

Seasonal Affective Disorder in the Brain

There’s a cool crispness in the air, the scent of fall spices in the kitchen, and the holidays right around the corner. For many people, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. For others, it’s the dawn of the worst time of year when sadness sets in.

It isn’t uncommon for shorter days, cold weather, and a lack of sunshine to trigger mild winter blues, which affects about 14% of American adults. For approximately 6% of people, however, a type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) descends like a dark cloud. Due to the pandemic, and limitations on social gatherings and celebrations, it’s likely that higher numbers of people will experience SAD this year.

Due to the pandemic, it’s likely that higher numbers of people will experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) this year. Click To Tweet

Be aware that SAD isn’t solely restricted to the winter months. A much smaller percentage of people develop seasonal depression in the summer.

SYMPTOMS OF SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER

SAD shares many of the same symptoms as major depressive disorder, including persistent sadness, negative moods, loss of interest in usually pleasurable activities, and difficulty concentrating. However, SAD has some atypical features compared with depression, such as:

SAD Symptoms           Depression Symptoms

Oversleeping               Insomnia

Weight gain                 Weight loss

Appetite increase       Loss of appetite

Agitation                      Feeling slowed down

If you have SAD, you’re likely to feel lethargic, irritable, and have trouble waking up in the morning. You probably feel like you never get enough rest even though you’re sleeping more than usual. You may tend to eat more, especially sweets and high-glycemic carbohydrates, which contributes to weight gain. It’s harder to concentrate, and you don’t feel like socializing with friends and family. Some people describe the feeling as being a grouchy bear that needs to hibernate for the winter. It’s no surprise that this can lead to problems at work, at school, and in relationships.

In general, the holiday season is difficult for many people. Financial pressures and the expectations of family members are high. For those of us who have lost a loved one or are alone, grief reactions can intensify during the holidays. Typically, the winter blues or “holiday blues” resolve rapidly with social support or without intervention after the first of the New Year.

SAD, on the other hand, continues to intensify during the holiday season, into the New Year, and into early spring. Without intervention, the symptoms don’t begin to abate until early to mid-spring, or until summertime for some people, when the days are longer.

SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER IN THE BRAIN

Experts are still researching what causes SAD, but findings so far suggest there may be multiple neurobiological factors, including the following.

  • Pineal gland disruption: Sunlight detected by the retina of the eye sends signals to the more primitive parts of the brain, one of which is the pineal gland. The pineal gland plays a vital role in hormone regulation, and one of the hormones it controls is melatonin. Disruption of the pineal gland hormone axis due to light deprivation is thought to be a primary cause of SAD. Support for this line of thought comes from several observations. First, SAD is decidedly more common in parts of the world that are more deprived of sunlight. In the U.S., for example, the rate of SAD is much highest in Alaska and is higher in the Pacific Northwest and in Maine than in southern states. The rate of SAD is higher in Scandinavian countries than in southern European countries. Second, people with SAD who travel to a more southern location experience improvement in their symptoms.
  • Melatonin disruption: Melatonin helps set the body’s biorhythms. According to a 2015 overview of SAD in Depression Research and Treatment, people with SAD may produce abnormally high levels of melatonin, which drains energy and provokes sleepiness.
  • Serotonin regulation problems: Research shows that people with SAD have trouble regulating serotonin, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter that is believed to be involved in mood control. A 2014 study in European Neuropsychopharmacology found that people with SAD have seasonal fluctuations in SERT, a protein that is involved in serotonin transport. In the winter months, they have 5% more SERT, which translates into lower serotonin activity, which is believed to be related to depression.
  • Reduced vitamin D levels: During the winter months, when sunshine is in shorter supply, people with SAD may produce less of this important vitamin. Having low levels of vitamin D, which is known as the “sunshine vitamin,” has been linked to depression and bipolar disorder. Vitamin D is also believed to play a role in serotonin activity, and lower levels may impact this important neurotransmitter.

In people who experience SAD during the summer months, it is often too much heat or too much light that triggers the onset of depressive symptoms.

HOW TO STOP FEELING SO SAD

If you experience SAD, there is hope. Many natural therapies can be helpful in reducing symptoms of depression, including the following.

  1. Bright light therapy: A growing body of research shows that using bright light therapy, especially in the morning, is effective in treating SAD. Bright light therapy is full-spectrum light that has to be at least 10,000 lux or higher to be effective. “Full-spectrum” is important terminology. It means that the light is the same color spectrum as sunlight. Other types of light won’t do for the treatment of SAD. For this therapy, aim for 20-30 minutes of exposure in the morning.
  2. Vitamin D supplementation: If you experience SAD, it’s critical to check your vitamin D levels and optimize them with a nutritional supplement if necessary.
  3. Kill the ANTs: It’s common for people with SAD to fall into unhealthy negative thinking patterns. Learning to kill the ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) by challenging your thoughts can be helpful. Psychotherapy can be beneficial in showing you how to change your thinking habits.
  4. Happy foods: Resisting the cravings to consume high-glycemic carbohydrates can help. As the winter months approach (and ideally year-round), focus your diet on foods that fight depression.

In some cases when natural treatments aren’t enough, medications may be helpful. It’s also important to look into other factors that may be contributing to depressive symptoms.

Depression, seasonal affective disorder, and other mental health issues can’t wait. During these uncertain times, your mental well-being is more important than ever and waiting until life gets back to “normal” is likely to make your symptoms worsen over time.

At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

5 Comments »

  1. This is a fantastic article I have suffered from SADD all my life and as a little girl I realized I had to have light. I grew up on the west coast and when we moved inland out of the fog I remember how happy I was and how I loved the early morning sun. I was only 4 years old and knew the sun and light made me feel better. Indoors we had kerosene lamps which was very low light. When I was 20 years old I moved away from the coast for 2 years and then moved back less than a mile from the ocean. I moved again three years later away from the coast and vowed I would never move back. I was 72 when I learned of Dr Amen and Sam-E and that made a huge difference in my life. I have been taking it for 12 years with great success I hope others will get help especially at a young age so they can enjoy life in a great mood. Thanks Dr Amen.

    Comment by Bessie Orndoff — November 20, 2020 @ 10:36 AM

  2. Is it Time for a Refreshing Trip to the Beach? Mid to Late November. Hurrinadoes retiring to another future season.

    Sun and Son, lots of Truth to them! Seems, I need ’em both! Alot!

    Comment by Alabama Brian — November 23, 2020 @ 3:33 AM

  3. Why does everyone always focus on light? It’s the COLD that’s depressing. Want to get up and go somewhere? Yuk….

    Comment by millicent hughes — November 25, 2020 @ 4:47 AM

  4. Yes, Son and Sun! That’s absolutely true. Those are the two best things to start enjoying the winter months.

    Daniel

    Comment by Daniel — November 25, 2020 @ 8:10 AM

  5. I worked in the computer field for 37 years, long hours mainly in late fall through winter and always suffered SAD. There were two years where I had a office on the south side of the building, during late fall and winter everyone else closed their blinds to the sun except me, those two years I was more happy and loved working instead of having the blues. That chance of having an office where I could soak up the sun was the best thing that happened to me, no more SAD conditions .

    Comment by Fred King — November 25, 2020 @ 10:57 AM

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