When the days get shorter and the nights get longer, our bodies adapt instinctively to the diminishing light. Our brains produce more melatonin, a hormone linked to sleep, and less of the mood-boosting hormone serotonin. The result: you may be feeling less than motivated come November. If so, you’re not alone. Keep in mind, however, that there are some people who are especially sensitive to these seasonal changes and may experience a more serious condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
What Is SAD?
According to psychiatrist Bruce Cohen, MD, seasonal affective disorder was once thought to be a separate condition from depression and bipolar disorder. But in fact, it is a variant of those illnesses that causes depression-like symptoms to intensify during a particular season. Most often, that season is winter. Hence, the frequently used term “winter blues.”
The cause of SAD is still unknown, but Cohen says there are some likely explanations. First, our bodies’ circadian rhythm or biological clock may get out of sync due to the limited light exposure. Then there’s the boost in melatonin that signals to the body that it’s time to sleep. As a result, our sleep cycles are off and our mood may darken.
“In addition to feeling more sad and withdrawn, you may have other symptoms that are not typically associated with depression,” says Cohen. “Rather than having insomnia, decreased appetite and weight loss, for example, people with a winter depression or SAD may be excessively sleepy. They also may have an increased appetite, specifically a craving for carbs and comfort foods, so they may experience weight gain.”
Learn more about the symptoms of clinical depression.
For many people, SAD arrives in the fall and resolves on its own in the spring months. But, says Cohen, just because SAD is likely to go away naturally, it’s not necessary to ride out the winter months feeling blue. There are changes you can make and treatments available that can help overcome this mild depression.
“If SAD is not significantly affecting your life — you’re still going to work, etcetera — but you are sleeping more and eating more and you’re feeling sad and withdrawn, try lifestyle changes first,” says Cohen. These include:
1. Get into the light
Light therapy or phototherapy has been shown to decrease melatonin levels in a matter of days. But not any light will do. There are light boxes specifically made to mimic natural light and help ease or prevent the symptoms of SAD.
“You should put the light at arm’s length off to the side. Continue to use it daily throughout the winter months,” says Cohen. Note that if you have bipolar disorder, light therapy may trigger a manic episode, so be sure to talk to your doctor prior to starting the therapy.
2. Head outside
Getting outdoors during the cold winter months isn’t always easy, but it is the most effective way to get your body the light exposure it needs. “Spending half an hour to one hour outdoors even on a cloudy day will make a difference,” says Cohen. That’s because the intensity of outdoor light is significantly greater than that of indoor lighting.
Light boxes are a good alternative in a pinch, but even they can’t compete with the sun. So be sure to schedule some time outside every day. Ideally, you could take a walk or do something active – aerobic exercise is a proven way to lift your spirits. Enlist a buddy to join you if you need a little extra motivation.
3. Mind your sleep routine
Avoid the temptation to hibernate and sleep in, which can get your body off track. If you struggle to wake up when it’s still dark outside, try “dawn therapy.” Along the same lines as light therapy mentioned above, dawn therapy uses a special light to brighten your room gradually before you wake up. This tricks your brain into thinking it’s bright and sunny and time to start your day. A simple, cheaper take on dawn therapy would be to purchase a light timer for your bedside lamp and set it for one hour prior to your wake-up call.
4. Talk to your doctor
If you experience more extreme symptoms that keep you from your everyday routines – hopelessness, suicidal thoughts – or if you just can’t seem to shake the winter blues despite trying the methods above, talk to your doctor about the options available to you. He or she may prescribe an antidepressant medication or psychotherapy to help relieve your symptoms.