Protect your mental health by recognizing the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
The leaves are changing color and cooler weather prevails, soon to be followed by snow and occasional days of near arctic conditions. For many, the shortening days can signify many months of depression. If you feel despondent the same time every year, you could be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
There is more to SAD than the acronym implies. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression that lasts for four or five months until the days become longer again. This disorder affects an estimated 10 million Americans and women are four times more likely to be diagnosed with it than men.
Researchers have found that people with SAD produce too much melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. “A person’s circadian rhythm, or ‘body clock’ helps determine their sleep patterns,” says Dr. Christopher Robles, a Family Medicine and Primary Care physician at White Plains Hospital. “When there’s less light—and particularly when the seasons change — your body clock signals to the brain to make more melatonin so you get drowsy. Body clocks that run fast or slow can disrupt your sleep.”
People with Seasonal Affective Disorder often develop a predictable set of signs and symptoms, which may include:
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
- Anxiety and an inability to tolerate stress
- A desire to oversleep, having disrupted sleep patterns, and difficulty staying awake during the day
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue despite increased sleep hours
- A tendency to overeat, with a craving for sweet and unhealthy foods, resulting in weight gain
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
How to stop feeling SAD
There is evidence that the amount and quality of sleep we get is associated with the amount of vitamin D our bodies absorb, particularly in the colder months. Fortunately, Dr. Robles says, a natural source of this vitamin is readily available. “You can get vitamin D from sunlight, so go outside, even if it’s just during your lunch break,” she says “It can have a positive effect on your mood.”
A healthy diet can also help chase away that SAD feeling. Dr. Robles recommends eating natural foods like egg yolks, mushrooms, fatty fish and liver because they’re full of vitamin D and nutrients.
Finally, staying active can help your body and mind settle into a more restful routine. Exercising for 30 minutes three times a week can help boost your mood and relieve stress and anxiety.
Nearly everyone has days when they feel lethargic or down, and that’s normal. But if you feel down for days at a time and you can't get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, see your primary care physician. They will be able to analyze your symptoms and help you get back to a healthier state.