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By: Dr. Doug Newton,

Winter is a festive time of year. With peppermint-flavored treats, cozy decor, and snow-filled activities, it’s a time often rife with nostalgia and fond memories. 

Yet winter is a notoriously difficult time of year, too.

Have you ever noticed that as the seasons change, so does your mood? 

Sometimes called the “winter blues,” you might have observed that as the days get shorter, you experience symptoms similar to depression

With seasonal stressors and shorter days, no one is expected to be holly jolly all winter. In fact, people often experience mood shifts during the fall and winter months. However, there’s a difference between fleeting mood shifts and seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern. 

SAD is a type of depression that occurs yearly, usually during the fall or winter. (For some people, it can occur in the summer.) It is characterized by sadness or loss of interest or pleasure in activities. 

SAD is a real, diagnosable mental health condition that affects 5% of adults in the U.S. Let’s take a look at four things you should know about this mental health condition.

1. We don’t know exactly what causes SAD. 

SAD is a clinical diagnosis that affects millions of adults and often lasts around 40 percent of the year, usually in the late fall and winter months. 

People living with SAD experience symptoms of depression like perpetual fatigue, appetite change, difficulty concentrating, and losing interest in previous hobbies. The exact causes of SAD are unknown, but it’s generally linked to a lack of sunlight as days get shorter and nights longer. 

Your body’s internal clock and hormone (serotonin and melatonin) levels can all be affected by sunlight. So if you get moody when the clouds roll in, you’re not just being dramatic — there’s science behind those emotions. 

2. Vitamin D can help. 

Many people with SAD have insufficient or deficient levels of Vitamin D. 

Usually, symptoms of SAD show in early adulthood, around ages 18-30. SAD is four times more likely to affect women, and those living farthest north from the equator (and the least likely to synthesize Vitamin D naturally) are most likely to report symptoms. 

Your brain depends on Vitamin D, most commonly produced via sunlight, to help regulate its sleep-wake rhythm. Limited exposure to sunshine in the fall and winter months can result in Vitamin D deficiency and be linked to SAD. Incorporating more Vitamin D into your routine through outdoor activities or a supplement may help your symptoms.

3. Craving carbohydrates is a distinct symptom.

During the holiday season, many of us turn to comfort foods. Pies, cookies, and treats seem to multiply. But it might be SAD if you find yourself craving an unusual amount of carbs. One of the distinct symptoms of SAD is carbohydrate cravings that can lead to overeating and weight gain.

SAD can also cause other symptoms, such as sadness, lack of interest in hobbies or activities, trouble sleeping, lower energy, and trouble concentrating. Sometimes, feelings of sadness or worthlessness may lead to thoughts of death or suicide. It’s important to seek medical attention if you observe any changes to your mental or physical health during the winter months.

 4. Treatment can help you get back on track.

When depression hits, your world becomes dark and lonely. Therapists work to help be a light for your path and guide you out of depression. Talking with a therapist can be very helpful in getting to the source of your depression.

One main therapy offered to treat SAD is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The main goal of this psychotherapy is to help you overcome unhelpful thinking patterns while promoting purposeful and enjoyable activity.

Light therapy, or phototherapy, is another treatment where sunlight is replicated with artificial light. Using a light therapy lamp helps compensate for the lack of sunlight you get when you’re hit with SAD. Over time, it has been documented to help relieve symptoms of SAD and potentially keep depression at bay.

Depending on your causes and symptoms, feeling better might mean trying a combination of at-home self-treatments and seeking professional help. If symptoms are severe enough, your doctor or psychiatrist might prescribe you medication, such as an antidepressant.

Although living a healthy lifestyle, such as exercising more frequently, increasing exposure to sunlight, and maintaining a healthy diet, may alleviate some symptoms, seeking professional help is the best course of action for making sure that you can successfully treat your current episode of depression (or SAD) and prevent future ones.

If you suspect you might be experiencing signs of SAD, talk to your doctor or mental health professional for an official diagnosis before starting any treatment options. 

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