Do any of these sound like you during the winter months?
- Have a depressed mood more days than not
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you once enjoyed
- Increase in appetite, especially for carbohydrates
- Increased sleep
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue despite extra sleep
- Increase in restlessness or slowed movements
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Trouble concentrating or making decisions
- Thoughts of death or suicide
You may be experiencing SAD—Seasonal Affective Disorder. Nearly 70% of people who struggle with depression will experience SAD during the winter months. About 5% of the general population also may deal with this type of depression. Symptoms typically resolve themselves starting in March.
There is a combination of factors for why SAD occurs. One has to do with the overproduction of melatonin. This is a hormone that increases drowsinessin response to darkness. During the months of December, January, and February we have shorter daylight hours as well as decreased levels of sunlight because the sun is lower on the horizon. Exposure to the sun helps our skin produce vitamin D. We need vitamin D to absorb calcium which promotes bone growth. Low levels increase fatigue, muscle pain, ability to fight infection, and depression. Additionallypeople with SAD may have difficulty in regulating serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects our mood, appetite, and sleep. During the winter months, people with SAD overproduce SERT, a protein that transports serotonin. Increased SERT levels diminish serotonin activity, increasing depression. Some also believe that we are not as aware of these effects in December as we are often preoccupied with the holiday season.
To reduce and cope with the symptoms, try the following:
- Sit near a full spectrum light also known as a lightbox or SAD light. This is not an ordinary lightbulb, but one that has at least 10,000 lux. It’s best to sit close to it for about 30 minutes a day, preferably in the morning hours.
- Get at least 15 minutes a day of natural sunlight. Do not put on sunscreen, it will block the production of Vitamin D. While dermatologists warm us about the damaging effects of the sun’s ultraviolet rays, most agree that this amount is therapeutic.
- Try therapy. A trained professional can teach you coping skills and help keep you accountable when your motivation is low.
- Talk to your doctor. If you are already taking an antidepressant, it may make sense for him or her to increase your dose or add another medication during the winter months.
- Get your Vitamin D levels checked. As we spend less time outdoors and often wear sunscreen regularly, many of us are deficient. If your levels are deficient, your doctor can prescribe a high dose of it. Vitamin D is also available over the counter as a supplement.
- Rule out any medical issues. Hypothyroidism, anemia, infections, and mononucleosis are all conditions marked by the symptoms listed above. A medical doctor can make an accurate diagnosis and treat these conditions.
- Take your vacation in the winter instead of the summertime. Head south. The closer to the equator, the more exposure to the sun.
- Increase your intake of foods rich inVitamin D. These include fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel, almonds, cheese, egg yolks, mushrooms, and fortified foods like milk, yogurt, cereal, and orange juice.
Realize that the winter solstice occurs on December 21. This is the shortest day of the year when we have the longest hours of darkness. Every day after we add a few more minutes of daylight.
Remember that Spring and Summer always come. Winter is just a season. You will get through it!
Insight Into Action Therapy offers therapy to help you learn strategies to deal with your depressive symptoms. Learn more about our services and how we can help by visiting insightactiontherapy.com or give us a call at (703) 646-7664.