What to Do About the Winter Blues: Signs and Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (Nov 2020)
It can be a struggle to stay upbeat and productive as the weather turns gray. If you’ve been feeling more tired and less focused as the days grow colder, you’re not alone!
In fact, studies estimate that as many as 2.95 million Americans may be affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder each year.¹
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (very appropriately abbreviated as “SAD”) is the clinical name for a recurring depressive disorder that typically begins in autumn and continues through the winter months.
Symptoms of SAD include low energy, feeling irritable or hopeless, and changes in appetite and sleep. Patients with SAD may gain weight or lose their appetite altogether, and activities that were once exciting and joyful during the sunnier months can suddenly feel exhausting or pointless.
Young women are most likely to experience SAD, and the further away from the equator you live, the higher the risk.¹ A family history of depression, bipolar disorder, or SAD also increases your chances of developing Seasonal Affective Disorder.
In addition to these triggers, you may also be more likely to develop SAD if you are already chronically sick with autoimmune disease, a tick-borne illness, or suffering from exposure to mold or other environmental toxins. These are conditions we see frequently in our practice, and we have noticed a correlation with SAD, as well as for patients dealing with chronic stress, such as parenting a child with PANS/PANDAS.
SAD symptoms are at their worst from December to February, when the days are the shortest. While it may feel simpler to try to ignore a case of the winter blues, if left unchecked, this disorder can result in serious issues, including chronic insomnia and suicidal thoughts.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is caused by two primary issues: difficulty regulating the neurotransmitter serotonin and potential overproduction of the sleep hormone melatonin.¹
Serotonin is a powerful neurotransmitter that helps regulate your mood. A helpful protein called “SERT” is responsible for transporting serotonin in the brain. However, that process needs to happen gradually so that serotonin has time to do its important work.
Too much SERT can mean lower serotonin activity, which in turn can cause depressive disorders like SAD. In fact, one study showed that SERT levels are 5% higher during the winter months in people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.²
Coupled with serotonin issues, SAD patients may also produce too much melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that causes you to feel sleepy when it’s dark. During gray winter days, your system may produce too much melatonin, causing you to feel lethargic.
The one-two punch of low serotonin activity and higher melatonin levels packs a wallop for your circadian rhythms.
Circadian rhythms are what help your body follow a 24-hour cycle of sleeping and waking. In people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, the circadian signal of a change in seasons is timed differently, leading to very real and often debilitating symptoms.³
So what can you do if you or a loved one is suffering?
Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder
If you suspect Seasonal Affective Disorder, the first step is a complete workup with a functional health provider to ensure there are no other conditions causing your symptoms. At the Center for Fully Functional Health,® we always do a deep dive first to rule out other illnesses before diagnosing SAD.
Once SAD is confirmed, we recommend supplementing with vitamin D3 and a mood support formula such as SAM-e. (High-quality formulations of both can be found in our online apothecary or in our office.)
We also treat SAD patients with Myers with Glutathione IV therapy, full-spectrum sauna sessions, and red light therapy. Also known as “photobiomodulation,” research proves that exposure to the full light spectrum can help reset the neurotransmitter and hormone imbalances that may cause Seasonal Affective Disorder, as well as increase production of antioxidants that are key to reducing inflammation.⁴
We offer full-length red light therapy in our office. However, we highly recommend SAD patients invest in a 10,000 lux light box for use at home. It’s an affordable, convenient way to help prevent the discomfort of Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms.
Transcranial photobiomodulation may also be effective as a natural antidepressant, according to recent studies.⁵ If you are interested in trying this form of therapy, you can find reputable, effective devices from Vielight. (Use coupon code CFFH10 to save 10%.)
If you suspect SAD or have other symptoms of depression, we would be honored to help. Our physicians and team are here for you year-round to ensure you live your healthiest, most productive and energetic life – that’s what it means to live Fully Functional® and what we want for all of our patients!
You can book an appointment here. We are also happy to speak with you about IV, sauna, or red light therapies at (317) 989-8463 on Monday-Thursday, from 8AM – 5PM Eastern time.