Most people, it seems, experience a certain amount of what we regularly refer to as the “blahs” during the winter. Winter months in places where winter temperatures really do happen are a veritable breeding ground for low mood.
We leave work and it’s dark by the time we make the commute home, if not when we walk out the door of the office. Gray skies and tree branches--despite the popularity of blue-gray color schemes indoors, it just doesn’t work as well outside. Cold temperatures force us indoors when we might otherwise be frolicking in the sunshine. True blue skies, rich green leaves and grasses, the rainbow of colors in the outdoors and the outfits, fresh air...we miss them when they’re gone.
Add to that the stress of the to-do lists and abundance of company around the holidays, or, in some cases, the lack of company or grieving loved ones. Then throw in the excess of comfort foods, which are really only comforting in the moment, but don’t do our bodies a lick of good in the aftermath.
It’s the perfect storm for irritability, anxiety, sadness, and, for some people, the deeper, harder-to-shake Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly acronymed SAD).
Is it a typical case of the Winter Blues/Blahs, or is it SAD?
Rush University Medical Center in northern Illinois (well-versed in surviving long winters) describes the difference.
The most common symptoms are general sadness and a lack of energy. Other symptoms of the winter blues include the following:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feeling less social than usual
- Difficulty taking initiative
The hallmarks of SAD are sleeping too much and overeating. We know, you’re all thinking, “That’s me from November 20 to January 1.” But those symptoms alone don’t mean you have a disorder. Other common SAD symptoms include the following:
- Mood that is down or depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Loss of interest in activities you typically enjoy
- Withdrawing and isolating yourself from friends and family
- Struggling to focus and perform at work or home
- Feeling constantly fatigued and lethargic
- Feeling hopeless about the future
- Having suicidal thoughts
It gets serious, and when it happens every year, as it very well may if SAD is what you’re dealing with, it can become dangerous.
What causes Winter Blues to become the more serious SAD?
Sunshine is more than just a visual happy maker and a warming tool. When your skin is exposed to sunlight, it makes vitamin D from cholesterol. The sun's ultraviolet B (UVB) rays hit cholesterol in the skin cells, providing the energy for vitamin D synthesis to occur.
Exposure to less natural light and, hence, vitamin D can really cause problems, like
- dips in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood
- disruptions in circadian rhythms (your body’s internal clock), which help control sleep-wake cycles, and
alterations in melatonin, a hormone associated with both mood and sleep, among other issues.
A popular scientific and medical discussion at the moment--the role of vitamin D in depression. Studies are showing that higher levels of vitamin D could have a significant connection to relief of depressive symptoms, sometimes in comparison with other treatments, like light therapy. And if there’s a natural, more cost-effective, schedule-friendly way to improve your mood for months at a time, that seems like something worth trying.
Like more general forms of depression, you and your doctor can and should approach Seasonal Affective Disorder from a variety of angles
- Participate in therapeutic counseling
- Engage in activities that highlight the mind-body connection--meditation, yoga, etc.
- Consider medications that help regulate serotonin creation and processing within the body.
You should also consider diet and vitamin intake as a natural approach to include in your treatment. Taking a vitamin supplement that includes a highly absorbable form of vitamin D3, and adding folate (low levels have been linked to depression) may help give you the relief that you need to not just survive the holidays, but finally thrive.
Everyone should have something to look forward to in winter. Especially you. If you’re feeling really low, there are more options than the “bootstraps” approach or hibernating. How about feeling better? We’d love to help you step back out into the light this winter.