The Science Behind Winter Blues: Understanding and Fixing Symptoms of SAD

WellnessThe Science Behind Winter Blues: Understanding and Fixing Symptoms of SAD

The Science Behind Winter Blues: Understanding and Fixing Symptoms of SAD

Road in the winter night

The short days and cold weather of the winter months bring feelings of varying degrees of sadness to many. If you feel sad or are more irritable during these times, you’re not alone. And you’re certainly not “faking it”.

So… Since it’s real, what exactly makes people susceptible to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)? And what are the best ways to fix it?

Why Do We Get SAD?

SAD is an extreme form of what many refer to as “the winter blues”. It is characterized by depression that occurs every year during the winter. Sufferers find it harder to function as they normally would.

As you might expect, location seems to play the largest role in susceptibility to SAD. The closer you live to one of the poles, the greater your chance of suffering from it. In fact, those of us lucky enough to live in Canada have a higher chance to fall victim to SAD. And for females, that chance is even more increased than those living in sunny, warmer places.

In addition to depression, SAD is characterized by other symptoms. Anxiety, immune dysfunction, weight gain, fatigue, drug or alcohol abuse, irritability, and even extreme carbohydrate cravings. Location is often seen as the quintessential cause. But researchers are far from an agreement about the precise reason SAD occurs in select people, suggesting it may be more intricate in nature.

Possible triggers include impaired serotonin uptake, increased melatonin secretion, inadequate exposure to outdoor light, disrupted circadian rhythms, inadequate vitamin D consumption and production, a history of other forms of depression, a lack of social supports and increased physical and mental stress. Genetics and even evolution may also play a part. SAD tends to be seen in families and primarily in women.

For many people, symptoms can be relatively mild and will only bother them for a short period of time. These people suffer from what is referred to as “subsyndromal SAD”. However, people with extremely severe symptoms find it difficult to carry out day-to-day tasks in the winter without continuous treatment.

Treating SAD

The first step to treating a disorder like SAD is to acknowledge that it is affecting you and learn that you are not alone. The good news about SAD is that there are ways to help and sometimes completely reverse its effects. If you think you may have seasonal affective disorder, here are some treatment options:

Vitamin D

This type of depression is prevalent at a time during the year and in geographical locations where the population’s vitamin D stores are typically low. Which is why amping up your consumption of this fat-soluble vitamin is seen as a great first step treatment.

There have been many studies done on the supplementation of vitamin D and they have proven that the recommended daily intake of 400 international units is in fact exponentially too low, especially for those of us living in cool climes. You can have your vitamin D level checked by your GP and have them suggest an amount based on your blood level. Or, taking an extra few 1,000 iu per day on your own might help (there was a study done recently at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto that had patients supplementing with up to 40,000 iu per day with no ill effects), but we always recommend speaking to your professional healthcare provider first. 

Talk Therapy

Counselling, psychotherapy or cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) can be extremely useful in helping people to cope with SAD symptoms. They can help sufferers recognize and deal with other factors that may be contributing. Therapy offered for SAD usually aims to identify connections between your thoughts, feelings and behaviour, and helps you develop practical skills to manage them. Your GP may even be able to refer you to a psychiatrist or service that specializes in treating SAD.

Bright Light Therapy

This therapy is an artificial means of stimulating the brain’s neurotransmitters with light and it seems to enable people with SAD to avoid oversleeping, one of the major symptoms. Light therapy can help you fight SAD and subsyndromal SAD and is great for those who suffer from even the smallest amount of winter blues. They are bright lights that can be used during the dark winter months to help keep up energy levels. Look for a lamp that doesn’t emit UV light and is at least 5,000 lux. There are also sunrise alarm clocks that simulate the light of dawn. They increase in intensity slowly to wake you up gradually while set like an alarm clock.

Herbal Treatments

St. John’s wort is a popular herbal remedy that some people find helpful to deal with mild or moderate symptoms of SAD. However, it is not suitable for severe SAD or if you use light therapy as it can make your skin very sensitive to light. You also shouldn’t take St. John’s wort if you are taking prescription antidepressants and you should seek advice from your GP or a pharmacist before using it with any other medication (even other over the counter remedies), as SJW can interfere with their desired effects.

Exercise as a Treatment

We’ve all heard it before. “Exercise is excellent for mood, relieves stress and it increases general well-being as well as energy”. If you don’t to go to a gym, join a rec sports team, go skating, take a dance class, stretch along to a yoga video at home, take a snowboarding lesson, enroll yourself in a kickboxing class, go for a swim, chase your littles or your spouse around the house—whatever makes moving around in the winter more fun.

SAMe, long chain omega-3 fatty acids

Tryptophan, the amino acid needed in order to produce serotonin, melatonin and vitamin B3, is not made by the body. It must be obtained from the diet. As a component of dietary protein, it is plentiful in chocolate (yay!), oats, bananas, dried dates, milk, cottage cheese, meat, fish, turkey, and peanuts. It is also available as L-tryptophan in supplement form.

Pharmacological Therapy

Antidepressant drugs work on brain chemicals to lift your mood. While they don’t cure depression, they can help you cope better with the symptoms. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) have been shown to be effective in treating severe cases of SAD. But they are not recommended as a treatment for mild or moderate SAD. They can also be combined with light treatment and taken seasonally so they have more effect during the winter. Be sure to speak to your doctor before starting any new drug regimen.

Please note: This article, its links, and advice are for your convenience only and are not meant to substitute advice and recommendations from your professional healthcare provider. If you or a loved one are experiencing depression-like symptoms, speak to a health practitioner.

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