How Seasonal Affective Disorder might be giving you the winter bluesby Lindsay Ulrich
Winter’s here and the days are grey, short, and the temperature is low. With the lack of sunlight and outdoor activity options, it’s no wonder that some of us might get a little down during the winter months. It’s not unusual for weather to affect people’s moods, and some people are more vulnerable to seasonal depression than others. If you’re experiencing a heavier spirit this winter, you may be experiencing a mild form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). On their website, The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) claims that 15% of the population in Ontario experiences a mild case of SAD, known as “the winter blues,” while between 2% and 3% experience moderate to severe SAD.
Researchers are still looking into the causes of SAD, though it is thought to be linked to seasonal sunlight variation and its affect on the way our brain regulates our internal daily rhythms. One theory, supported by research conducted by Dr. Jeffrey Meyer and colleagues at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), suggests there are higher levels of serotonin transporters in the brain during the winter months. Serotonin transmitters remove serotonin, a chemical that helps to regulate physical and emotional functions like mood and energy levels, and an increase of these transmitter levels can also mean an increase in the amount of negative emotions someone may experience. Whatever the cause, it’s important to consider the symptoms of seasonal depression.
The Canadian Mental Health Association’s list of symptoms:
- change in appetite
- weight gain
- decreased energy
- tendency to oversleep
- difficulty concentrating
- avoidance of social situations
- feelings of anxiety
What you can do about it:
First thing’s first: if you are experiencing severe feelings of hopelessness or despair, seek professional help. The symptoms of depression are temporary and treatment is very effective.
If you are like most people who experience SAD, you consider the seasonal change of mood as an unwelcome inconvenience ⎯ unpleasant, but tolerable. But there is hope for the SAD sufferers who want to take action to better their mood. Some methods that have proven results:
- · Exercise
Exercise helps to release endorphins, relieve stress, increases energy, helps you sleep better, and has been recognized as a great help to those with SAD. Exercise for people with SAD is best done outdoors since it increases exposure to sunlight.
- · Diet
Since an increased appetite, carbohydrate cravings, and weight gain are symptoms of SAD, it’s helpful to monitor your eating patterns. The Mental Health Foundation (www.mentalhealth.org.uk/) recommends whole grains, cereals, fruits, vegetables, rice, sweet potatoes, oily fish, and B12-fortified soy or yeast extract for vegetarians. Try to eat regularly to keep blood sugar levels stable, and stick to less sugary foods since they may trigger mood swings.
- · Social Support
Combating the withdrawal and isolation that often accompanies negative feelings is an important step in reducing the risk of a worsening depression. Try scheduling outings and events with friends. Even small trips, like walking to a coffee shop to read, can greatly improve your mood. Consider searching online to see if there are SAD support groups in your area.
- · Sun
Try rescheduling your day to maximize outdoor activities and exposure to sunlight. Go for a daily walk during your lunch hour. It’s also helpful to rearrange furniture at home or at work to receive sunlight from windows if possible.
- · Light therapy
Consult a healthcare provider about light therapy. Light therapy is a treatment option that exposes patients to measured doses of artificial light intended to replace the lack of summer daylight. In Canada this therapy is often started right away, and has proved extremely effective.
Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Depression
Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Seasonal Affective Disorder
Mental Health Foundation (MHF), Diet and Mental Health