As the days get darker and the temperatures cooler, it’s not uncommon for some people to find themselves feeling increasingly sluggish and blue during what is supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year.”

In many cases, these feelings are only temporary (who isn’t feeling a little tired and sad heading into yet another pandemic Holiday season?). But other times, these emotions could actually be a signal of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, a common type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern.

What is SAD?

Sometimes called “winter depression” or “Holiday blues,” seasonal affective disorder is a temporary form of depression that usually starts in the late fall or early winter and goes away in the spring or summer. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer and resolves during the fall or winter months. The exact causes are unknown but studies show that many individuals with SAD, which affects about 1 in 20 people in the U.S., display reduced activity of the neurotransmitter serotonin; a brain chemical that plays a role in regulating mood.

Evidence also suggests that people with SAD tend to produce more melatonin — a hormone that your brain secretes as a response to darkness. Melatonin is essential for maintaining your body’s sleep-wake cycle (aka your “biological clock”) and can support better sleep. However, an overproduction of this hormone can cause excessive sleepiness and lethargy.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, vitamin D deficiencies may also exacerbate issues with serotonin and melanin during the wintertime. Vitamin D, popularly known as the “sunshine vitamin,” is produced in your skin as a response to sunlight and plays a role in nearly every one of your brain’s cells, influencing your appetite, facilitating sleep, and regulating your mood by boosting serotonin production.  For that reason, the lack of sunlight during fall and winter may trigger changes in brain chemicals that could lead you to become sadder, sleepier, and oh-so unmotivated.

According to studies, Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with the presence of mood disorders. There may be many reasons some people have insufficient levels of vitamin D.  A physician or healthcare provider can have your vitamin D levels checked for a deficiency. There are also over-the-counter tests available. Detecting and treating inadequate vitamin D levels in people with depression and other mental disorders may be an easy and cost-effective therapy that could improve long-term health as well as quality of life.

For that reason, the lack of sunlight during fall and winter may trigger changes in brain chemicals that could lead you to become sadder, sleepier, and oh-so unmotivated.

Coping with winter depression

Most people with SAD find that their symptoms improve or go away completely when the season begins to change, and the weather becomes warmer. But this doesn’t mean that there are things you can’t do right now to feel better — after all, we still have at least a couple of months of winter to get through! So here are three easy tips to help chase away seasonal depression.

Learn to recognize the symptoms. The first step in beating SAD is learning to recognize it. Think back to this time last year or the year before: do you remember feeling sadder around the fall or winter? Did you start feeling better when the sun finally came out in spring? If the answers are yes, you may have SAD.

If this is the first time you’ve felt this way during the winter, take note of your symptoms and consider talking to a professional if you’re having a hard time coping. Signs that you may have seasonal depression include:

  • Feeling depressed or down most of the day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite or weight, like frequently craving sweets and carbs
  • Excessive sleepiness or finding it hard to wake up in the morning
  • Feeling sluggish or lethargic
  • Irritability
  • Social withdrawal

Step into the light

Going outside for a few minutes (ideally 20-30 minutes every day) may be enough to boost your vitamin D levels, but if it’s too cold or too hard to step outside, you may want to look into other options, like light therapy.

step into light

Step into the lightLight therapy, also known as phototherapy, involves using artificial light to treat a variety of conditions, including SAD. This type of therapy aims to expose your body to specific wavelengths of light that simulate outdoor sunlight to boost vitamin D, serotonin, and melatonin.

There are many types of home light therapy lamps, called light boxes, specifically designed to treat SAD in the market. The most important thing to keep in mind with these devices is to avoid looking directly into the light source (it may damage your eyes) and to make sure you’re still getting as much natural light as possible, even if it’s just a few minutes a day.

Lean into exercise

Research shows that regular exercise is a powerful tool against all forms of depression. But exercising doesn’t have to mean going for a run or taking a fitness class at the gym. Any type of physical activity, like taking a short walk, doing a few sit-ups at home, or doing some light yoga, can significantly improve your mental health and overall well-being. The key is finding something you like and trying to do it often, at least a few times a week.

Take nutritional supplements

There are many nutritional supplements that are effective for balancing mood and are backed by human clinical studies, including safron, methylfolate, rhodiola and 5-HTP.  However, not everything works for everyone.

  • Saffron is an impressive botanical known in traditional medicine and backed by growing science for its’ neuroprotective effect and mood balance. Saffron, and its’ key constituents crocin and crocetin, have been clinically studied for evidence of improving positive mental outlook, nervous system health, lessening oxidant stress levels, and increased brain dopamine levels.  In studies, saffron extract (15 mg daily) has been shown to improve mood imbalances in adults and adolescence, including those with anxiousness.
  • Rhodiola has multiple science-backed benefits, including mood imbalances and fatigue. Long used in traditional medicine, rhodiola first appeared in scientific literature in the early 1700’s in the Swedish Pharmacopeia. It is known as an adaptogen, which is a natural substance that helps the body adapt to or rebound from stress (both physical and emotional). Studies have shown that it and significantly improves signs of stress such as occasional anxiety, supports healthy stamina, and improves mental capacity.
  • 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, an important “messenger” in the body needed for healthy nerve and brain function, as well as having a significant role in emotional mood and well-being. In one study, 68% of those involved showed improvement with 150mg per day. Studies have also shown that supplementing with 5-HTP appears to improve sleep quality, and that 5-HTP also exerts antioxidant radical scavenging activities.
  • Folate (methyl folate) is a naturally occurring B vitamin needed to sustain healthy levels of three important neurotransmitters in the body: serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine (known as the natural feel-good chemical in the brain). Serotonin helps regulate mood, occasional anxiety, and other functions, while norepinephrine helps mobilize the brain for action and can improve energy and attentiveness. Experts have suggested that supplementing with less than 1mg of folic acid can be useful in managing mood imbalances.

The Takeaway

It’s normal to have some days when you feel down. Even for those experiencing seasonal mood changes, it is important to take steps to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the year. Exercise, light therapy, checking your vitamin D levels, and adding mood-boosting dietary supplements to your diet, may give your positive outlook a boost.  But if you feel down for days at a time and you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, see your health care provider. This is especially important if you feel hopeless or your sleep patterns and appetite have changed.