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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that follows a seasonal pattern. SAD symptoms typically start around mid-fall and intensify as winter progresses, sapping your energy and leaving you feeling listless and moody. The symptoms slowly start disappearing with the onset of spring.
Depression, sadness, and listlessness that may occur at any time of the year are not considered to be symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. It is only considered SAD if you experience the symptoms during certain seasons.
Understanding what is seasonal affective disorder, what causes it, and what are the symptoms of SAD can help you make more informed decisions about how to proceed.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
As the fall season progresses, temperatures drop, days get shorter, nights get longer, and it starts to rain and feel generally miserable.
Besides just the discomfort of the lower temperatures, many people find that these climatic changes also affect their mood. They begin to feel low and struggle to get out of a low mood that never seems to lift. This is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.
Seasonal affective disorder affects many people, causing them to feel persistently sad and depressed during this time of year. While there are a few people who also experience the symptoms of SAD in the spring, they are more prevalent during the cold winter months.
Understanding the causes and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are key to identifying a treatment plan that works for you so that you can pull yourself out of that pervasive winter slump.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The exact cause of SAD is not fully understood, but it is thought to be linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter days of autumn and winter.
Sunlight offers powerful benefits for our physical and mental health and mood.
The reduced sunlight hours can disrupt our circadian rhythm, which is the body’s internal clock. The two most notable disruptions are related to the reduced production of serotonin during the day and the reduced production of melatonin at night.
How Reduced Sunlight Causes SAD: The Role of Sunlight and Hormone Production
Sunlight plays a crucial role in regulating our body’s internal clock and affecting our mood. When exposed to sunlight, the brain produces serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, appetite, and sleep.
Serotonin is often referred to as the “feel-good” hormone because it contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness. Lack of sunlight can lead to decreased serotonin levels, contributing to the development of SAD symptoms.
Melatonin, often referred to as the “sleep hormone,” is responsible for regulating sleep-wake cycles. It is produced by the pineal gland in response to darkness and helps prepare the body for sleep.
In individuals with SAD symptoms, the decrease in sunlight exposure during the winter months can disrupt the normal production of melatonin, leading to symptoms such as excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue.
Genetics may also play a role in the development of SAD, as it does appear to run in families. However, more research is needed to fully understand the genetic factors involved.
Common Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
The symptoms of SAD can vary from person to person. They may include any one, two, or more of the signs below. Most SAD symptoms start in the fall and continue for an extended period of time, often until the beginning of spring.
– Fatigue and low energy: Lack of energy, unshakeable lethargy, and difficulty staying awake during the day are the most common seasonal affective disorder symptoms.
– Persistent low mood: A person with SAD may experience feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and despair, which is often tied in with feelings of fatigue and lethargy.
– Difficulty falling asleep: That constant low mood, lethargy, and sense of hopelessness often results in difficulty falling asleep, disrupted sleep patterns, and inability to stay asleep longer.
– Difficulty waking up: The sleep disruptions make it challenging to get out of bed in the morning resulting in oversleeping, causing a domino effect of lethargy, fatigue, and irritability during the day.
– Difficulty concentrating: The lack of sleep, persistent lethargy, and low mood, which are common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, make it a struggle to stay focused and make decisions or even remember things.
– Changes in appetite and weight gain: SAD symptoms often trigger increased cravings for carbohydrates and sweets, which can result in weight gain.
– Unusual Irritability: Getting irritated for something trivial is a result of the combination of all the other symptoms of SAD.
– Decreased sex drive: SAD can affect libido and reduce interest in sexual activities.
– Social withdrawal: People with SAD may isolate themselves from social interactions and withdraw from relationships.
– Physical symptoms: Some individuals may experience physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches.
Not everyone will experience all these common SAD symptoms in the same combination or at the same intensity levels.
These symptoms might vary slightly based on a variety of factors. If you suspect you may have SAD and are struggling to cope, you should seek medical advice from a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis.
This is not something you should self-diagnose as you may overlook some other underlying issue. Just feeling low does not necessarily mean you have seasonal affective disorder.
Your healthcare provider will assess your symptoms, medical history, and any seasonal patterns to determine if you have SAD or another form of depression.
While you’re waiting for an appointment, there are several things you can do to manage SAD symptoms naturally.
How To Manage SAD Symptoms Naturally
If lack of sunlight is the main cause of seasonal affective disorder, stands to reason that getting more exposure to the sun’s rays can help reduce the symptoms of SAD.
But, that’s easier said than done. Fortunately, there are a few things you can incorporate into your daily routine to combat the hormonal disruptions caused by reduced sunlight exposure.
1. Embrace the Healing Power of Nature
Spending time in nature offers powerful mental health benefits, including reducing stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression.
The sights, sounds, and smells of nature can have a soothing effect on the mind, helping to alleviate the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
A leisurely walk in a natural setting or pottering in the garden can do much to improve mood and promote a sense of calm and relaxation.
To make the most of nature’s healing effects, try timing your outdoor activities during peak sunshine hours. Sunlight exposure combined with nature can be a simple yet powerful strategy for managing SAD symptoms naturally.
Don’t forget to use sunscreen before you step out into the sun. Research supports the importance of using sunscreen in winter.
2. Get Moving with Regular Exercise: The Benefits of Exercise for SAD
Regular exercise, even mild exercise, has been shown to be an effective natural remedy for managing the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Physical activity releases endorphins, also known as “feel-good” hormones, which can improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression.
Exercise also increases blood flow to the brain, enhancing cognitive function and reducing feelings of fatigue and lethargy.
To maximize the benefits of physical activity to reduce SAD symptoms, do your exercises outdoors during sunlight hours. Just this small tweak can have a tremendous impact on your overall well-being.
When it comes to choosing the right exercise for SAD relief, it’s important to find activities that you enjoy and can incorporate into your routine consistently.
To make physical activity a consistent part of your routine, consider the following tips:
– Choose activities you enjoy: Whether it’s dancing, gardening, hiking, or a leisurely walk in the park, indulging in activities that you genuinely enjoy and look forward to will keep you motivated to exercise regularly.
– Set realistic goals: Start with small, achievable goals and gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts.
Make it a social activity: Exercise with a friend or join group classes to make your workouts more enjoyable and hold yourself accountable.
– Mix it up: Try different types of exercises to keep your routine interesting and prevent boredom. Focus on aerobic exercises on some days, strength training on other days, and yoga or pilates on others. This combination will improve your overall well-being, increase energy levels and flexibility, reduce stress and anxiety, and promote relaxation.
Remember, the goal is to find an exercise routine that works for you and brings you joy. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week to reap the benefits of staying active for combating SAD symptoms.
3. Use Light Therapy for SAD
Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is a popular treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder. It involves exposure to bright, artificial light emitted from a light therapy box or a SAD lamp.
SAD lamps are different from the ordinary bulbs that we use every day. The light used in a light therapy box is typically much brighter than indoor lighting. These lamps are designed to emit light that mimics natural sunlight but without the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. They are a non-invasive, safe, and effective treatment option for various conditions, including SAD.
Light therapy works by stimulating the brain’s production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in regulating mood.
Exposure to bright light helps to reset the body’s internal clock or circadian rhythm, which controls sleep-wake cycles and other bodily functions.
By replicating natural daylight, light therapy can alleviate the symptoms of SAD and improve overall well-being.
Read more about light therapy for SAD with important tips on how to choose the right light box for you and how to use light therapy correctly. Start your search with this list of the best light therapy lamps for SAD.
Light therapy can be a valuable addition to your SAD management routine, but it’s essential to use it as directed and consult a healthcare professional if you have any concerns or questions.
4. Bring Nature Indoors
If outdoor activities are not feasible, there are many other ways you can bring nature indoors to uplift your mood and create a calming environment.
Open your curtains or blinds during the day to let in natural light and create a connection with the outside world.
Houseplants add a touch of greenery to your indoor living space and also purify the air.
Incorporate elements of nature into your home decor, such as nature-themed artwork, natural fabrics, or soothing earth tones. The natural touches help you harness the healing power of nature to improve your overall well-being, especially during the cold winter months when you’re forced to stay indoors.
5. Nourish Your Body with a Healthy Diet
The food we eat plays a crucial role in our overall well-being, including our mental health. A diet rich in essential nutrients can support brain function, stabilize mood, and provide the energy needed to combat the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
When it comes to fighting SAD through nutrition, focus on incorporating these mood-boosting foods into your diet:
Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, as well as walnuts and flaxseeds, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and improve overall brain health.
Vitamin D-rich foods: Since sunlight is a primary source of vitamin D, it’s important to include foods like fatty fish, fortified dairy products, and egg yolks in your diet to compensate for reduced sunlight exposure.
Complex carbohydrates: Opt for whole grains, legumes, and vegetables, which provide a steady release of energy and help regulate mood by increasing serotonin levels.
Antioxidant-rich foods: Include fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants, such as berries, spinach, kale, and bell peppers, to reduce inflammation and support brain health.
Probiotic-rich foods: Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi contain beneficial bacteria that can positively impact gut health and indirectly improve mood.
6. Practice Relaxation Techniques
Stress can exacerbate the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, making it essential to incorporate relaxation techniques into your daily routine.
Chronic stress can negatively impact mood, sleep patterns, and overall well-being, so finding healthy ways to manage stress is crucial.
These stress-relief techniques can help promote emotional well-being:
– Mindfulness and meditation: Practice mindfulness or meditation to cultivate a sense of calm, reduce stress, and improve focus and clarity.
– Deep breathing exercises: Engage in deep breathing exercises to activate the body’s relaxation response, relieving tension and promoting a state of calm.
– Journaling: Write down your thoughts, feelings, and concerns in a journal to gain clarity, process emotions, and reduce stress.
– Yoga and tai chi: These mind-body practices combine movement, breathwork, and mindfulness to reduce stress, improve flexibility, and promote relaxation.
Most important of all, prioritize self-care for SAD. Take time for yourself and engage in activities that bring you joy and relaxation. This can include reading, spending time with family and loved ones, and scheduling time for your favorite hobbies.
Incorporating aromatherapy into your daily routine can also help you better manage the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder and promote overall well-being.
If your symptoms are severe or persist despite trying natural remedies, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional for a comprehensive evaluation and appropriate treatment options.
Remember that everyone’s experience with Seasonal Affective Disorder is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. It’s essential to find a combination of natural remedies that resonate with you and incorporate them into your routine consistently.
Read the book Winter Blues, Fourth Edition: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder to arm yourself with more knowledge and insights about this disorder. The book is written by Dr. Rosenthal, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School. Internationally recognized for his pioneering contributions to understanding SAD and using light therapy to treat it, the book has been receiving fantastic reviews from readers and has been called ‘A landmark book’ by none other than The New York Times.
Disclaimer: This information is not intended to serve as medical advice. Please consult your doctor before using any natural medication or if you experience any unusual symptoms. See Full Disclaimer here.