Article by Dr. Anup Kanodia, MD, MPH
Functional Medicine Physician and Founder of KanodiaMD
The days are getting shorter, and the temperature is getting colder. You may be starting to feel inexplicably sluggish, fatigued, or unmotivated. Do you find yourself having a hard time waking up in the morning or reaching for starchy and sweet snacks throughout the day? Are you yearning for a sunshine-filled trip to the beach? If you answered yes to these questions, you are not alone. Millions of people experience what’s known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as winter ramps up.
SAD is defined as depression associated with late autumn and winter and thought to be caused by a lack of light.
Common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include:
- Weight gain
- Trouble concentrating
- Craving carbs and sugar
- Loss of interest in social activities
- Sleeping more
What causes the winter blues?
Researchers can’t quite pinpoint one single cause of seasonal depression, but there are a handful of strong correlations that we find in people suffering from SAD:
- Circadian Rhythms — With less exposure to sunlight, our internal biological clock (which controls mood) doesn’t work properly and disrupts our emotional regulation.
- Vitamin D Deficiency — About 42% of the U.S. population is deficient in vitamin D, which is a huge player in producing healthy levels of serotonin—the feel-good hormone. Because sunlight helps produce vitamin D in our bodies, less daylight exposure creates a nutritional deficiency and a dip in mood.
- Melatonin — Melatonin is the chemical responsible for our sleep patterns. Sunlight shuts off melatonin production, so with less sunlight, we produce more melatonin and feel sleepier and more sluggish.
Who is at risk for seasonal affective disorder?
It’s estimated that around 20% of people in the U.S. experience SAD ranging from mild cases to extreme depression that affects all aspects of their lives. Those with existing psychiatric disorders may be affected more greatly. This includes those with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and anxiety or panic disorders.
Because the decrease in daylight greatly affects the circadian rhythm in the body, those who live further north of the equator (like in New England) or in cloudy regions tend to feel the effects of SAD more often.
How is the COVID-19 pandemic making seasonal depression worse?
We are already inside more during wintertime because of the cold and shortened days. Now, because of the pandemic, all the things we would typically do to get out—like seeing a movie, gathering with family, or walking around the mall—may not be possible because of social distancing and not feeling comfortable in public settings. People are further removed from their friends and family networks, compounding the feeling of sadness and isolation.
What can I do to help treat my seasonal affective disorder?
SAD creates some very distressing symptoms that can interfere with everyday life, but with a functional medicine approach, it can be treated by supporting the right systems.
- Get Outside! —Outdoor light is much stronger than any other type of light that you get through a window. Try to go outside first thing in the morning to expose your body to natural sunlight—even if it’s cloudy … it still helps! Outdoor light shuts off your melatonin, gets your body making vitamin D, and helps to boost your mood. While direct sunlight is much better, you should also ensure that you have access to plenty of sunlight throughout your day in your home or office.
- Light Therapy — Many of my patients find success with Re-Timer light therapy glasses. Wearing these for 30 minutes while you get ready in the morning can greatly benefit your circadian rhythm in the winter months. I also recommend a vitamin D sunlamp, which will generate vitamin D naturally in your body through ultraviolet exposure.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — This type of talk therapy has been shown to have a lasting effect on treating depression in general. Talking with someone can decrease feelings of isolation and help you get on a path to feeling better.
If you’re struggling with depression, get help. Whether it’s consulting a functional medicine physician or talking to a therapist, there are many ways available to help you start feeling better. If you or a loved one has suicidal thoughts, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
For questions about or treatment for seasonal affective disorder or other health needs, please contact our office or call us at (614) 524-4527.