Why does depression seem to be amplified around this time of year? Why do feelings of loneliness take hold no matter how close friends and family might be? While some may experience heightened feelings of anxiety or melancholy surrounding the holidays due to the pressures they tend to entail, there is actually an organic reason for the noticeable shift in emotional energy.

SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, is extremely common and is experienced by thousands of people every year, most commonly during the winter. (I happen to be one of those lucky people.) Winter SAD is caused by the decrease in daylight hours, which affects our body chemistry in several different ways. Here are just a few:

  1. A drop in serotonin levels. Decreased exposure to sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin production, the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating moods, leading to feelings of depression. This can occur even in those who don’t already suffer from depression.
  2. Disruption in melatonin balance. The production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating our sleep cycle, can be thrown off balance causing one to feel the need to sleep more. In addition, regardless of the amount of sleep, feelings of low energy, tiredness, and general fatigue and lethargy can be experienced.
  3. Decreased vitamin D production.  Exposure to sunlight stimulates our body’s natural production of vitamin D, which is needed by virtually every cell in the body for optimal functionality. Low levels of vitamin D have been associated with multiple diseases/illnesses, including fibromyalgia, autoimmune disease, insulin resistance, and osteoporosis. Symptoms of deficiency include muscle pain and weakness, chronic fatigue, weakened immune system, excessive sweating, slow healing, and low/depressive moods.

And what’s more, people who live further away from the equator are more susceptible to Seasonal Affective Disorder. (Alaskans? Yeah, sorry. You’re pretty much SOL for half of the year.)

So what are the options for relief/treatment/coping? Luckily, there are quite a few. But as always, I highly recommend consulting your doctor to figure out which combination is best for you.

⇒ Light Therapy.

Exposure to full spectrum lighting can mimic the effects of sunlight. “Therapy Lamps” are available at a variety of places, with multiple options available to suit specific needs and to be décor friendly. NatureBright SunTouch Plus light also provides ion therapy, and is decently priced with thousands of great reviews on Amazon.com. If you’re looking for something more portable, the Verilux HappyLight is an inexpensive option, also with great reviews.

The idea is to sit next to the lamp for a specific amount of time on a daily basis, allowing the mock-sun-rays to enter your pupils (no, you don’t stare directly at it). Use it while doing homework, reading a book, knitting, etc. Your doctor will be able to give you a precise timeframe to aim for based on your prognosis, but the general recommendation is a minimum of 30 minutes per day. The more the better, and there’s no real way of overdoing it here – just be sure only to use it during actual daylight hours, or you’ll risk messing with your circadian rhythm (i.e. if you like to read before bed, don’t use the therapy lamp).

⇒ Vitamin D Supplements.

Definitely consult your doctor with this one, as there is such thing as a vitamin D overdose! Your doctor will tell you what dosage is ideal for you. My doctor recommended I take 3-5,000 iU up to five days a week (my blood test showed I was extremely deficient, which is the reason for the high dosage). In general for non-deficient adults, the recommendation is anywhere from 800-1,000 iU daily.

After some research on which brands were the best on a budget, I went with NatureWise Vitamin D3. So far, I’ve noticed a difference – at least, I can definitely tell if I forget to take it more than a couple days in a row. This particular brand also has some stellar reviews on Amazon.

⇒ Exercise.

Any type of exercise that can be done outdoors is ideal so that you can take in some sunlight while you’re at it. Go for a run or bike ride in the mornings. Take an afternoon walk with your dog or a friend. If you have access to a heated pool, go for a morning or afternoon swim.

If outdoor exercise isn’t an option, hit the gym. Take dance lessons. Sign up for a yoga/pilates class. Always wanted to learn karate? Now is a better time than ever to start. Whatever exercise plan you choose, develop a routine and stick with it. It’s like taking a medication – you have to take it daily for it to work.

⇒ Medication.

medicationIf you don’t normally suffer from depression or anxiety and take medication, your doctor might want to put you on a very mild antidepressant to get you through the winter. If you are already on antidepressants, your doctor might want to adjust the dosage and/or prescribe a supplemental medication to take temporarily in addition to your regular meds. (Of course, it goes without saying, don’t take it upon yourself to increase your dosage – always consult your doctor!)

⇒ Talk Therapy.

Whether it’s a psychologist or your best friend, talking through it can work wonders. Above all, be sure to carve out plenty of time for friends – lunch dates, meeting up for coffee, having cocktails, etc. Surrounding yourself with people who care about you is vital to combat that looming feeling of loneliness during this time.

⇒ Good Old Fashioned TLC.

cuddlingSpend lots of extra time cuddling with your significant other. Cuddling stimulates the production of the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which makes you feel happy, safe, secure, and loved. It’s a natural mood booster, and besides – who doesn’t like to cuddle?!

Useful Links:

  • More about SAD & detailed treatment info – WebMD
  • Light therapy also effective for Bipolar Disorder – Healthline.com
  • Vitamin D linked to Depression & other chronic illnesses – Dr. Mercola

Do you or does someone you know have Seasonal Affective Disorder? What things tend to help you/them the most in coping with the symptoms? I would love to hear from you! Feel free to comment below.