Seasonal Affective Disorder

The popular phrase, “Spring ahead. Fall back,” referring to the changing of our clocks for Daylight Savings Time has a deeper impact for some people. Have you recently been experiencing depressed moods, a noticeable loss of energy and motivation, more time spent in bed and sleeping, increased anxiety, and difficulty staying focused? 

You are not alone, and you might be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Seasonal affective disorder, also sometimes referred to as “winter depression,” is a form of depression that presents itself at certain times of the year, typically beginning in late fall or early winter and lasting into the spring.

Reported incidences of SAD afflict around 4-10% of the population in the United States. Those are only the reported cases. Studies suggest that as much as 20% of people suffer from some form of SAD, ranging from very mild to more severe cases.

The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include:

  • Depressed moods
  • Increased sleep
  • Energy loss
  • Increased anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating and focusing on tasks
  • Irritability
  • Change in appetite
  • Losing interest in activities you previously enjoyed
  • Feelings of hopelessness

Studies have shown that seasonal affective disorder may be caused by a biochemical change in our brains that is triggered by shorter days and reduced sunlight during the winter months. Serotonin and melatonin, in particular, have been linked to changes in mood, energy, and patterns of sleep. 

Serotonin production in our bodies is activated by sunlight. Less sunlight in the winter time could lower the level of serotonin our bodies produce. Low levels of serotonin have been associated with some forms of depression.

Melatonin production, on the other hand, works the opposite way. Our bodies produce more of it in darkness. Melatonin, of course, is a popular supplement for its ability to regulate sleep. Higher levels of melatonin can cause sleepiness and a general feeling of sluggishness.

Indeed, some studies have found that people with seasonal affective disorder do feel better after exposure to bright light. Seems simple enough, but it is a little more complicated than that.

Alfred Lewy, MD, a seasonal affective disorder researcher at Oregon Health & Science University, says it is not just about getting more light. It’s about when you get that light. 

“The most important time to get light is in the morning,” he says.

He thinks that SAD is due to a shift in our body’s circadian rhythm, which is our 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. Your alarm might say it is time to wake up, but your body’s internal clock is telling it that it should be resting.

Bright light in the morning can help to reset your circadian clock.

In addition to light therapy, other treatments for SAD include traditional psychotherapy and sometimes antidepressant medications.

It is completely normal to have days where you feel down, but if you feel down for days at a time, cannot get motivated for activities you normally enjoy, notice your sleep patterns changing, turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation, or you have prolonged feelings of hopelessness, it is more than just the changing seasons and it is time to get help.

Although it might seem that “winter depression” is just a cycle you have to go through, any form of depression can be serious and should be treated as such.