The winter can be a dreary time and downright depressing for those who have “the winter blues.” The winter blues refers to seasonal affective disorder or SAD for short (such an appropriate acronym!). People with SAD will have bouts of depression during specific time periods of the year, usually during the winter months. SAD is associated with decreased hours of sunlight exposure, making it common in Northern latitudes such as Canada.
Some typical symptoms of SAD include:
- Increased sleep
- Decreased energy/lethargy
- Increased appetite
- Carbohydrate cravings
- Difficulty concentrating
- Decreased libido
- Withdrawal from family and friends
If you suspect that you have seasonal depression see a healthcare professional to get an accurate diagnosis.
The exact cause of seasonal affective disorder is unknown. Some factors that may contribute include:
- Biological clock (circadian rhythm). There is a link between reduced exposure to sunlight and developing seasonal depression. Inadequate light exposure can disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm. The disruption of your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
- Retinal sensitivity. Some individuals who develop SAD have a lower retinal sensitivity to light and might be more susceptible to the decreased sunlight in the winter.
- Family History. Individuals with a family member who have a mood disorder (insomnia, depression, anxiety, etc) are more likely to develop SAD, suggesting a genetic component.
- Neurotransmitters. Changes in your brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) can contribute to the development of SAD
- Melatonin, your sleep hormone. People with seasonal depression have a longer duration of nighttime melatonin secretion in the winter compared to the summer. Sunlight suppresses the production of melatonin and a lack of sunlight in the winter causes the brain to overproduce melatonin. Excess melatonin can contribute to increased fatigue and changed sleep patterns of people with SAD.
- Serotonin, your “feel good” hormone. Reduced sunlight can cause a decrease in serotonin levels. Serotonin is a hormone in our body that can affect mood. Lower levels of serotonin are often seen in people with anxiety and depression. The changes in melatonin and serotonin levels can affect energy, mood, appetite, and more.
Light therapy is timed light exposure to help normalize melatonin levels. Melatonin levels can be disrupted in people with SAD, and light therapy may help to balance the levels. Bright “full spectrum” lamps are used in light therapy, and some studies have shown benefit for both treatment and prevention.
Most of our vitamin D comes from exposure to the sun. Vitamin D is very important and plays many roles in the body such as bone metabolism, immune system support, and mood regulation. An association between low blood vitamin D levels and symptoms of a mood disorders such as SAD have been suggested in several studies. Supplementation with vitamin D is generally recommended in Canada in the winter because of decreased sun exposure. Inquire about Vitamin D testing (25-Hydroxy Vitamin D) at Junction Health.
Carbohydrate cravings occur because carbohydrates can temporarily promote the release of serotonin in the brain. Unfortunately, consuming simple carbohydrates is followed by a crash as blood sugar drops. Avoid this cycle by balancing your blood sugar by consuming protein and good fats with each meal. Some other helpful changes would be to avoid alcohol and caffeine and keep hydrated.
Exercise is an excellent way to help boost your mood and research supports the benefit of exercise for depression. Exercise releases endorphins that can help to improve your mood. It can be difficult to find the motivation to exercise in the winter, so finding an exercise buddy can provide encouragement and motivation.
What Should you Do?
Go for a walk! Getting outside will give you sunlight exposure and will provide important exercise.
Speak to a professional! Please book an appointment to speak to your doctor or with a naturopath if you suspect you have SAD. Other conditions need to be considered such as depression, bipolar disorder, or other medical conditions and medications that may contribute to depression. Seeing a naturopath will help you get to the root cause to receive an individualized treatment. Feel free to book a 15 minute free consultation with Dr. Jennifer MacDonald, ND if you would like to learn more.
Eyles, Darryl W., Thomas HJ Burne, and John J. McGrath. “Vitamin D, effects on brain development, adult brain function and the links between low levels of vitamin D and neuropsychiatric disease.” Frontiers in neuroendocrinology 34.1 (2013): 47-64.