Brrrr! The winter air can be alarming in the morning, often slapping us awake! The days are shorter and the nights are longer. Have you ever noticed that in the winter season, you may feel:
- a little more blue than usual
- sleep more but don’t feel rested
- have increased cravings for comfort foods like pasta and breads?
- Does there magically seem to be an increase in your weight without any real explanation?
- Are you more irritable through the winter months?
- More anxious?
- Lack energy?
Did you know that there is a very common phenomenon, called Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D), that can affect about 2%- 6% of the population?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D) is defined as a form of depression that begins late autumn, early winter. It is thought to be caused by the lack of sunlight. This lack of sunlight can cause people to experience a change in their overall well-being, energy, sleep and eating patterns. We commonly will call these the “winter blues.” However, for some people, this can become an overwhelming change in mood and well-being, leading to clinical depression.
Adults, specifically women, are at a greater risk for experiencing S.A.D. Northern countries versus countries that are closer to the equator also endorse higher rates of S.A.D. This is linked to the shorter days that we experience, being in a northern country. There is also a genetic component to S.A.D. If there is a family member with a history of clinical depression, there may be a link to S.A.D. as well. Medication is not recommended for S.A.D; research shows that antidepressant medication for the treatment of S.A.D is no more effective than a placebo. The only exception here is for individuals with severe depression. Psychotherapy, regular exercise, and light exposure are quite effective treatment options.
The symptoms of S.A.D. can be many:
So what causes S.A.D? There are many biopsychosocial factors that contribute to the onset of S.A.D. Some of these might be:
If you think you may have seasonal affective disorder, not to worry! It is treatable. Here are some options:
- Appropriate diagnosis and treatment: Although you may have the above symptoms, you may not have S.A.D but an underlying medical condition. Or, you may not be suitable for certain therapies for S.A.D due to an underlying medical condition such as glaucoma. Your first point of contact should be your family doctor. It is helpful to take data on your symptoms yearly, before, during and after the winter season. This can help show patterns of mood fluctuations.
- Light Therapy: roughly 70% of people find relief with exposure to bright lights for a period of 15 to 30 minutes. There are specific light therapy lamps that can be purchased to provide you with an anti-depressant like effect. CAUTION: Do not use any lamp or stare at the sun. This will DAMAGE your eyes! You must make sure that your light lamp is specifically designed to be used for light therapy. There are some side effects such as eye-strain, headaches or irritability. To avoid inducing insomnia with the light therapy unit, do not use after 3:00pm.
- Psychotherapy: A psychotherapist can help reduce the symptoms of S.A.D. by teaching you how to cope with mood fluctuations, planning ahead for the winter seasons, identifying warning signs and triggers for S.A.D and learning to use mindfulness meditation. Psychotherapy sessions can improve your overall well-being. A psychotherapist can also help you take data on your feelings, energy and sleep. You can empower yourself to take action by learning more about your condition. Feeling helpless can become a vicious cycle. By sharing concerns and gaining support from a therapeutic environment, you are better equipped to work through this change in well-being.
- Support groups: Look for support groups in your community or online. By sharing experiences, tips and strategies, your peers can provide a safe environment for you to share your own journey.
- Vitamin D: Low vitamin D has been associated with seasonal affective disorder. Especially in northern latitudes, sun exposure is not ideal during the winter months, and we experience a decreased ability of our skin to create the active form of vitamin D. Speak to your Medical Doctor or a Naturopathic doctor at the Centre for Collaborative Health to test your vitamin D status and ensure that deficiency of this vitamin does not worsen your mood in the winter months.
- Exercise and Diet: increase your exercise by walking, jogging or skating. Try different types of physical activities as these activities release natural endorphins that release positive feelings. Our Chiropractic Doctor can assist you with these!
It is helpful to know that you are not alone. You are experiencing a change in your relationship with the weather. Instead of looking it as a disease to get rid of, try looking at S.A.D as a relationship problem. You and winter don’t get along. But just like most relationships, we can always learn various skills to increase the success of that relationship. So can you!