Daylight Saving Time is over, and that means earlier sunsets. Longer nights can take an emotional toll on some people and it can have some serious psychological effects as well. The most prominent mental health condition associated with the changing of seasons is Seasonal Affective Disorder.
As with all mental health issues, it is important to acknowledge that it exists, take it seriously, and seek help for it. SAD is no different when it comes to taking care of your wellbeing. Let’s take a closer look at this condition and what you can to work through and overcome its effects.
What Is SAD?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a combination of biological and mood disturbances that follow a seasonal pattern.
Most cases of SAD occur in the Fall and Winter seasons with a period of remission during the Spring and Summer. However, there are reported cases of the reverse known as Summertime SAD. More common is Wintertime SAD which affects about 5 percent of the U.S. population per year.
SYMPTOMS OF SAD
Wintertime Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms include:
- Daytime fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sense of hopelessness
- Becoming irritable
- Increased anxiety
- Lack of interest in things or activities that usually entice you
- Weight gain
- Decreased libido
All of these are also symptoms associated with depression, which is why it is important to seek help if they persist. Professionals will assess if these occur regularly or only during certain times of the year.
What Causes SAD?
When seasons change, light patterns change along with it. This is the leading cause thought to be associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder. It is linked to decreased sunlight exposure, and affects your biological clocks and circadian rhythm. This is because your light-dependent brain chemicals - like the hormones serotonin and melatonin - are no longer in sync with the pattern of the sun.
WHO IS AFFECTED BY SAD?
People who live in high latitudes far from the equator tend to be more at risk for developing this disorder. That is because these are places that, during the wintertime, see much less sunlight during the day. In some places, residents don’t see the sun for weeks at a time.
Young people, women, and those with a family history of Seasonal Affective Disorder are also more at risk for developing SAD.
How Is SAD Treated?
The most effective and clinically proven method for treating SAD is light therapy. This practice typically includes using a light box that filters out ultraviolet light. Because our “master clock” (known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus) receives its operating information from our eyes, it affects all the other clocks within our body, making our complete circadian rhythm very sensitive to light patterns.
Timed cycles of bright light exposure is proven to increase daytime alertness and evening fatigue. This in turn helps fight depression by keeping your sleep cycle regular and improving your mood.
If your doctor recommends light therapy to help ease the symptoms of SAD, it is suggested that your exposure lasts for 20 to 30 minutes first thing during your morning routine.
REGULAR SLEEP CYCLE
Studies link insomnia and depression as well as decline in brain function comparable to the effects of driving under the influence. This is why using light therapy to help with getting your circadian rhythm back on track and helping you readjust your sleep cycle is so highly recommended if it happens to suit your needs. Even though the clocks change and you might not be tired, still plan to go to bed at the same time anyway.
OMEGA-3'S - Based on a study by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center may help improve mood. The study showed that a collection of healthy adults who had low levels of omega-3s in their blood had a higher likelihood of reporting mild symptoms of depression than those with higher levels of omega-3s. Try including salmon, walnuts, and flaxseeds into your diet for improved mood.
FOLIC ACID - Although the connection is not yet fully understood, evidence shows that the body uses folic acid to create serotonin, the happy hormone. Foods rich in folic acid include sunflower seeds, oatmeal, leafy greens, oranges, and lentils.
VITAMIN B12 - Similar to folic acid, studies show a link between low B12 and low serotonin levels. Shellfish, including oysters, crab, and clams along with salmon, eggs, and cottage cheese are great sources for increased B12 intake.
VITAMIN D - Though more research is needed, many studies show that Vitamin D deficiencies are associated with multiple mental disorders. Additionally, Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin. With less opportunities for sunlight exposure in the Fall and Winter, it can be helpful to increase your Vitamin D intake to replace what you might otherwise be absorbing from the sun.
DARK CHOCOLATE - Dark chocolate is high in polyphenols which are naturally found in many other plant products. These micronutrients affect many biochemical and physiological processes within your body, including a protective nature regarding neurotransmission in the brain. This leads researchers to believe that dark chocolate can have significant antidepressant properties. Makes sense - who doesn’t feel happier after eating chocolate? Since many of the symptoms of SAD are similar to depression, adding dark chocolate into your diet could help ease those symptoms.
BANANAS - Bananas are rich in magnesium which, according to clinical studies, shows spectacular mood-improving potential. This links magnesium to lower anxiety levels and helps naturally relax you into good, quality sleep. In addition, we all know bananas for their high potassium content. Potassium is used by the body as fuel for the brain, which clears brain fog and improves the ability to focus.
Regular exercise increases our wakefulness and energy during the day because it signals the brain to release epinephrine and adrenaline. Exercising during the day can help with adjusting your circadian rhythm’s light-dark response because of the release of these hormones.
We all know that exercise gets your blood flowing and increases oxygen levels in the brain. This highly effective way to improve mood and wear you out enough to ensure a good night’s sleep - which we now know also helps with SAD. Not to mention, this also is a big factor in weight management.
When it comes to mental health, it is important to exercise multiple pathways toward wellness. In addition to other methods mentioned here, it is an extremely good idea to seek professional counseling to help you work through your feelings. Having someone to check in with regularly can have dramatic effects in your mental approach to emotional obstacles during the Fall and Winter seasons.
Talk To Your Doctor
Before you take steps to battle Seasonal Affective Disorder, be sure to discuss all of your symptoms with your doctor so that you can be properly diagnosed. Also, take their suggestions into consideration as to which approach is best for you so that you can proceed safely and be sure that it is what best suits your needs.
And remember, you are enough. Without imperfections, none of us would exist. And always, always speak to yourself the way you would to someone you love.