In the middle of winter several years ago, Vaidehi G. began experiencing signs of psychological distress.
“During the winter, the days can feel a lot shorter as it gets dark very quickly, and it’s really cold outside. I used to feel very empty, lonely, depressed and I would take many naps throughout the day,” the 24-year-old from South Carolina says. She had just moved back home after college and, while she was excited to start her first job after graduation, she was also struggling inside.
It wasn’t until she went to a therapist that Vaidehi learned she was experiencing “winter depression,” otherwise known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Vaidehi is not alone. Nearly 5% of adults in the U.S. develop SAD, according to the American Psychiatric Association, and women are four times more likely to be affected than men. The condition follows the seasonal clock and can last up to 40% of the year.
The short, darker days of winter can wreak havoc on hormonal balance, disrupting levels of melatonin, serotonin, and vitamin D and causing a domino effect of mental health problems. This condition is made even more complicated by the fact that the symptoms caused by seasonal changes can affect every individual differently. But as you prepare to hunker down for the return of the cold weather, there are some signs you can watch out for and some lifestyle changes you can make to ensure you stay healthy and happy during the winter months.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that corresponds with the changing patterns of daylight throughout the year. Symptoms most often occur during the fall and winter months when there is less sunlight, and they often peak in the U.S. in January and February. While SAD can start at any age, it usually begins in people who are 18 to 30 and is more common in those with preexisting mental health conditions such as depression or bipolar disorder.
Known as a snowflake illness, symptoms of seasonal affective disorder can look different for different people, according to Dr. Shana Feibel. “Common symptoms include increases in appetite and sleep but reductions in energy, motivation and concentration. Individuals can feel irritable, unworthy and have an unrealistic sense of guilt.”
Symptoms can be overwhelming and interfere with your daily life.
How Winter Affects Your Hormones
Researchers don’t fully understand what causes SAD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. However, studies indicate that decreased sunlight in the winter can affect your natural hormone balance which can in turn trigger the winter blues. There are three hormones that experts believe may play particularly important roles in this phenomenon:
Melatonin is one of the key drivers behind our sleep and wake cycles. Studies have shown that individuals with SAD produce an excess of this hormone, which can increase sleepiness. The mood and behavior changes that characterize SAD result from this overproduction of melatonin, which disrupts the body’s circadian rhythm, or the 24-hour-cycle that influences many essential processes including hormone production, the immune system, and mental health.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is directly linked to mood. “Serotonin levels can be influenced by sunlight exposure, most commonly rising in the summer and decreasing in the winter,” says Dr. Alexandra Sowa, an internist who specializes in metabolic health. Individuals with SAD can have low serotonin levels associated with the decreased sunlight in the wintertime. Symptoms related to low levels of this hormone include low mood, poor appetite, anxiousness, and other signs of psychological distress.
Vitamin D is a hormone that plays an important role in maintaining bone structure, supporting immune health, and regulating insulin levels. You can get some vitamin D through your diet (foods like fatty fish, egg yolks, and mushrooms contain high levels), but the best source is the vitamin D your body produces from the interaction between sunlight and skin. Studies have shown that vitamin D promotes serotonin activity in the brain. With less sunlight during the winter, individuals with SAD produce less vitamin D, which further impedes the production of serotonin.
Your Skin Can Also be Affected by SAD
Hormonal health is integral to skin health, so it’s no surprise that when your hormones are having trouble maintaining a healthy balance, you might see some of these struggles play out in your skin.
Vitamin D on its own is important to the healthy functioning of skin. This hormone helps your skin maintain a strong barrier, which protects against both external stressors like environmental pollution and skin damage and from internal issues like moisture retention and inflammation. If your vitamin D levels become low during the winter months, your skin barrier won’t be fully supported, which can lead to problems with acne, dryness, and increased sensitivity.
Depression, anxiety, and stress (aka higher cortisol) also have a dampening effect on your immune system. When your body is devoting more resources to the production of cortisol and to dealing with the new imbalances it is facing, it isn’t as capable of fully supporting your proper immune functioning. When this happens, you may notice that your skin takes a little longer to heal and you are more prone to breakouts.
Find A Lifestyle That Supports SAD
Treatment plans for SAD vary depending on the type and severity of your symptoms. The first step is to make an appointment with a psychiatrist or therapist, who can walk you through the medical treatment options, including light therapy, psychotherapy, and medication. But there are also diet and lifestyle changes you can make to help support your hormones and improve your symptoms during the long winter months.
Eat More Plants and Protein. “In my practice, I often diagnose SAD with an uptick of increased sleep and appetite – specifically cravings for refined carbohydrates,” says Dr. Sowa. “Although carbohydrates can temporarily increase serotonin and affect dopamine reward pathways, it can quickly lead to hormonal sugar crashes and weight gain, which can worsen feelings of sadness and isolation.” Dr. Sowa recommends resisting that bag of chips in favor of increased protein, veggies, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Pay particular attention to foods rich in Vitamin D, including salmon and other oily fish, egg yolks, and mushrooms.
Get outdoors. Natural sunlight is important to increasing your production of vitamin D and maintaining healthy hormone levels. If possible, go outside during the daylight for 30 minutes of sun exposure. Even skies that are a bit cloudy and gray can transmit the rays needed to get some vitamin D, but if you live in a place that really embraces the dark winter spirit, speak with your doctor about light box therapy. While a SAD lamp won’t help your body produce vitamin D (you’ll have to look to diet and supplements for that), it will help mitigate some of the symptoms of the disorder.
Keep moving. Exercise can boost endorphins, aka the “feel good” brain chemicals, and bolster serotonin activity. It has also been tied to better sleep, mood, and self-esteem. Find an activity that involves moderate exercise that you can do on a regular basis. Experts recommend getting in a sweat session for at least 45 minutes to 60 minutes per day.
Connect with others. Shortly after being diagnosed with SAD, Vaidehi’s therapist recommended group therapy. Vaidehi found support and comfort in sharing her struggles with others who were also experiencing similar symptoms. She also started reaching out to family and friends she could trust to reduce her isolation and feelings of loneliness. Connecting with others, whether that’s an old friend or a local support group, can help you feel better and boost your mood.
Tackle your stress. Stress can exacerbate depressive symptoms at any time of the year. Recognize what causes stress in your life and, if possible, minimize those stressors. Adopt healthy coping mechanisms that work for you to manage your daily stress. This could be journaling, deep breathing, meditation, acupuncture, or anything else that helps you feel a sense of calm equilibrium.
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While the exact cause of SAD remains unclear, the first step to beating the winter blues is recognizing your symptoms and seeking support, as Vaidehi’s story shows.
Since her diagnosis, Vaidehi’s life has changed for the better: “My mental health has improved, and I find myself coping better whenever I feel fatigued or anxious during the winter. I’ve also gained greater positivity and inspiration by continuing to connect and form new relationships.”