As the seasons change, so do many other parts of our lives. We switch our wardrobes from tank tops to sweaters, we replace our vases of daisies with sunflowers, and we see the start of a new school year. For many Canadians, the change in seasons also brings a change in mood and mental health. Why do 2-3 percent of people feel more down in the fall and winter months? And what is Seasonal Affective Disorder? Keep reading to find out.
What is SAD?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that arises annually at the same time of year. It usually occurs in the fall and winter months, however some people also experience it in the summer months. SAD must occur annually for more than two years in a row to be considered more than just the occasional low mood around the holidays.
What are the Symptoms of SAD?
The symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder are identical to the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. The only difference is the duration and when the symptoms start and end. SAD symptoms typically begin as the seasons change from summer to fall and end when they change from winter to spring.
Here are the most common symptoms of SAD:
- Sadness that occurs most of the day and for at least two weeks straight
- Appetite and weight loss or gain
- Insomnia or excessive sleep
- Withdrawal from activities usually enjoyed, including socialization
- Feelings of hopelessness and despair
- Irritability and agitation
- Low self-esteem
- Hallucinations and delusions
Suicidal ideation is another common symptom that must be taken seriously and immediately addressed. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, contact Crisis Services Canada.
What are the Risk Factors for SAD?
There are multiple theories about what causes SAD. It’s generally agreed that SAD is related to sunlight levels and sleep patterns.
In Canada and many other parts of the world, our daylight hours decline during the fall and winter months. At night, the brain produces a hormone called melatonin which promotes sleep and drowsiness. With less sunlight in the fall and winter, the brain produces more melatonin which affects your mood and energy levels. This also affects your circadian rhythm, increasing fatigue and either increasing or decreasing the amount of sleep you get.
Another possible theory is the decline in serotonin the brain produces in the fall and winter. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects your mood and energy levels. Studies show that serotonin turnover in the brain and serotonin production are lowest in the winter months, which means it could play a significant role in triggering SAD.
CAMH lists additional risk factors for experiencing SAD. They include being female, living farther north or south of the equator, being a young person, and having a family history of depression. Having pre-existing mental conditions such as substance addiction and eating disorders may increase your likelihood of developing Seasonal Affective Disorder.
COVID-19 and Seasonal Affective Disorder
The pandemic has caused immense stress, and has even led to a spike in Canadians with anxiety and depression. This is not surprising as COVID-19 has caused people to lose their jobs temporarily and permanently putting many people’s financial security at risk. That coupled with the inability to spend time in person with loved ones and children’s inability to socialize at school has contributed to increased depression and anxiety.
With the winter months around the corner, it would not be surprising to also see higher numbers of Seasonal Affective Disorder across the board. The holidays are already stressful for many, and with the threat of spreading the virus making people hesitate before they gather with family, it could become even more stressful.
This year more than ever, it will be important for Canadians to prioritize their mental health with self-care, awareness, and proactive prevention of depression.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Diagnosis
Getting diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder is nearly identical to the process of getting diagnosed with depression. Your physician or health care provider will ask you a series of questions regarding your mood, energy levels, other symptoms, and your thoughts. They may perform tests to rule out other conditions, but can ultimately diagnose you with SAD based on your answers to their questions.
How To Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder
There are several different treatment options for SAD, some with more reported effectiveness than others. It’s best to follow your health care provider’s recommendations for treatment.
One of the most effective and widely known forms of treatment is light therapy. As mentioned above, the lack of sunlight in the fall and winter affects our brain chemicals and circadian rhythms. Studies have shown that exposing people living with SAD to Bright Light Therapy (BLT) can effectively reduce and treat their depression.
What does BLT involve? Usually, patients will sit in front of a fluorescent light source that mimics sunlight for a set amount of time each day. For some, 30 minutes in front of this light source is enough to act as an antidepressant for their depression. Times range from 30 minutes to 2 hours daily for 2-4 weeks to see results. However, there are some side effects including eye strain, nausea, and headaches.
Other effective treatments for SAD include a combination of medication, psychotherapy, and self-care activities. It’s recommended that patients try to spend more time outdoors during the daytime to increase their serotonin and dopamine levels, as well as increase their intake of vitamin D.
Some self-care activities to increase in the fall and winter months are:
- Socializing (socially distanced and virtual)
- Relaxation and laughter
- Speaking to a therapist
You may also want to review your diet to see if any crucial nutrients are missing from it which could be affecting your mood.
How We Can Help
Wildflower Health and Wellness is excited to announce the opening of our Natural Dispensary. We offer high quality medicinal dried herbs, herbal tinctures, and professional line supplements all of which are certified clean. Contact us today to refill your supplements – including melatonin and vitamin D3.