Signs of Seasonal Depression & How to Cope in the Cold Winter Months

"Researchers have noted that SAD is associated with a biochemical imbalance in the brain in relation to neurotransmitters associated with mood regulation."
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If you’re one of the estimated 10 million Americans who suffers from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression, you may find yourself dreading the cold winter months when symptoms are most common.1 Triggered by the change of seasons, SAD may impact everything from your mood and personal life to your work and relationships.

But there are ways to reduce symptoms associated with seasonal depression and feel more like yourself again no matter what the weather looks like outside. Find out what researchers say about why seasonal depression happens, signs to look for, and preventative strategies to consider.

Is Seasonal Depression Legitimate? 

SAD is a form of depression listed in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a type of depression with a seasonal pattern. It should not be confused with the milder “winter blues,” which may affect most people from time to time due to shorter days, less sunlight, and more time indoors than usual.2 SAD is a legitimate disorder, which can be debilitating and interfere with daily functioning.

To be formally diagnosed with SAD, you must experience depressive symptoms beginning and ending during a specific season every year, with full remittance during other seasons, for at least two years.3 People with SAD must have more seasons of depression than seasons without depression over their lifetime.

Researchers have noted that SAD is associated with a biochemical imbalance in the brain in relation to neurotransmitters associated with mood regulation, like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. This imbalance is prompted by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter. As seasons change, those who suffer from this condition experience a shift in their biological internal clock, which in turn causes a shift in brain chemicals.4 SAD tends to be more common in people living far from the equator where there are fewer daylight hours in the winter. 

Signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) 

People with SAD experience the following types of symptoms in a seasonal pattern, beginning and ending around the same time each year: 

  • Feeling sad or depressed most of the day, almost every day
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite; eating more or less than usual
  • Change in sleep; usually sleeping too much
  • Loss of energy 
  • Restlessness
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Social withdrawal

Though SAD can affect anyone, it occurs more frequently in women than men. Onset of symptoms is usually between ages 18 and 30.

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What Causes it? 

Researchers are not entirely sure what causes SAD, though lack of sunlight is a major factor. Not only does the change of seasons trigger a disruption of the body’s circadian rhythm and brain chemicals, but it may also lead to a vitamin D deficiency and melatonin boost.5 This can cause sluggishness and mood swings.  

People at risk for developing seasonal depression typically have another mood disorder like bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder. If you have relatives with SAD or other forms of depression or mental health conditions, you are also more vulnerable to developing SAD. Living in a cloudy region or farther from the equator also puts you more at risk.

Fall and Winter Seasonal Depression

Most people experience SAD when fall starts and the days become shorter. The depression tends to worsen in the late fall and early winter until spring arrives with its sunshine and warmer weather. In the U.S., January and February tend to be the worst months for people with SAD.

Is “SAD” Still Possible in Spring and Summer? 

Though SAD is more common in fall and winter months, some people experience seasonal depression in the spring and summer. This is referred to as a “summer depression.” It starts in the late spring, early summer, and ends around fall. According to  Samar McCutcheon, MD, a psychiatrist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, up to 30 percent of people with SAD experience summer depression.6

Preventative Methods & When to See a Doctor

One benefit of having SAD is that because your symptoms follow a pattern, you can prepare for their onslaught. Researchers have found that people with seasonal depression can reduce their risk of developing symptoms by doing the following:

  • Use a light therapy box, which emits a very bright light (and filters out harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays) for about 20 minutes each day
  • Keep your circadian rhythm in check by getting adequate sleep and following a predictable sleep routine
  • Follow a nutritious diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Consider seeing a therapist, especially if your symptoms are worsening and you are having dark thoughts
  • Take vitamin D supplements
  • Exercise regularly
  • Go for walks outside to get as much natural sunlight as you can
  • Practice mindfulness techniques

If you still need support, try taking a non-prescription, homeopathic medication like Brillia — it can be used seasonally during these months without any “coming off” when you stop using it. Free from harsh, synthetic chemicals and harmful side effects, Brillia reduces symptoms of stress, anxiety, restlessness, and irritability, which can be exacerbated by seasonal depression. Brillia’s active ingredient consists of targeted antibodies to the brain-specific S100B protein, a key regulator of many different intracellular and extracellular brain processes. By regulating this protein, Brillia stops symptoms of anxiety and stress at the source of symptoms without affecting any other systems in the body or masking your personality. When combined with the healthy lifestyle habits outlined in our 5-Pillar methodology, which include proper nutrition, adequate sleep, controlled screen time, and mindfulness, you’ve got a master plan to support you throughout winter as well as the rest of the year. 

Find out  more about how Brillia works and find more resources on supporting your mental health at the Brillia(nce) Resource Center.

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References: 1https://www.bu.edu/articles/2019/seasonal-affective-disorder/, 2https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/seasonal-affective-disorder, <sup<3< sup="">https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4673349/, 4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3202491/, 5https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9293-seasonal-depression, 6https://www.everydayhealth.com/depression/summertime-sadness-ways-to-chase-away-the-warm-weather-blues/

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