Canada is known for it’s long winters and as Canadians we know how to make the best of it with our winter sports, hot chocolate and the odd beavertail. Yet there can be times when we find our famous season to be unbearable, and it starts to take a toll on our happiness.
This is often referred to as the ‘winter blues’. The official term is Seasonal affective disorder or SAD and it is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. Symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer. Just like the lifespan of your average cold, symptoms can start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses.
Like any mental health issue, causes and symptoms can be subjective to the person experiencing it.
Some common causes include:
Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight and therefore a decrease in the amount of Vitamin D your body absorbs naturally, can cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
Possible symptoms of SAD include:
- Tiredness or low energy
- Problems getting along with other people
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
Disclaimer: Any combination of these symptoms can be caused by other areas of concern in your life so be sure to consult your doctor before you make any changes to your lifestyle.
One of the most common forms of treatment for the winter blues is light therapy. In light therapy, also called phototherapy, you sit a few feet from a special light therapy box so that you’re exposed to bright light. Light therapy mimics natural outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. Again, consult with your doctor before you consider this option. There is also the consideration of medication or psychotherapy if appropriate for your needs. (Information retrieved from mayoclinic.org)
Other common methods that can help to reduce symptoms and do not require consultation with a doctor include:
Establishing and maintaining a regular sleep schedule with at least 7 hours per sleep each night.
Regular exercise consisting of at least 30 minutes of an activity where you experience an increased heart rate.
Improved healthy eating habits. This can include eating a balance diet of fruits, vegetables, proteins and carbohydrates. As well as reducing your intake of junk food, take-out and foods high in sugar.
As someone who has experienced the effects of SAD in the past, I can honestly say that increasing my exercise schedule and improving my eating habits has helped reduce my related symptoms more than I ever imagined. Yet, there are times when the lifestyle changes are not enough so be sure to talk to your doctor about what can work best for you.