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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Here we are, mid-January and I don’t feel too dramatic when I say I’M SO TIRED. The short window of winter daylight hours along with the lack of raw, fresh foods has made me feel like a winter robe-zombie and I’m not exactly loving it. I love the long summer days, working outside, and staying so busy that I can’t wait to fall (more like completely crash) asleep. But we’re human animals and as human animals, we also need to follow the rhythms set by nature.

Winter is a natural timeout. We can’t keep going and going, driving on empty. We need to stop and refuel. While I understand and respect this, I still hate it. And this year has proven to be even more difficult. As a person who identifies as *slightly* more extrovert during a global pandemic in the middle of the winter, I’m struggling. However, I’m learning to take shelter in the knowledge that every chapter has a reason: we learn, we grow, and we recharge. That, and the mantra that many of us are living by these days “THIS WILL ALL BE OVER SOMEDAY.

But until then, let’s also acknowledge a key element to this current feeling of winter blueship: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes SAD as a type of depression that causes significant changes in your mood and behavior whenever the seasons change. For most people, this shift in mood/behavior/energy begins in the fall months and subsides in spring and summer.

Winter patterned SAD is influenced by the changing light patterns that come with the fall and winter seasons, which affect our circadian rhythms. This rhythm is essentially an internal clock that influences hormone production and regulation. Changes in the seasons and the amount of light absorbed disrupt our circadian rhythms, which impacts our production of serotonin and melatonin - causing us to feel many of the most common SAD symptoms. How do you know if you have SAD?

According to NIMH, symptoms include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day

  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed

  • Experiencing changes in appetite or weight

  • Having problems with sleep

  • Feeling sluggish or agitated

  • Having low energy

  • Feeling hopeless or worthless

  • Having difficulty concentrating

With winter patterned SAD specifically including:

  • Oversleeping (hypersomnia)

  • Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates

  • Weight gain

  • Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)

Lawd! If those last few winter-specific symptoms don’t describe my current state exactly! But good news! There are a few steps we can all take to work off this SAD cloak and get back to feeling a bit more in balance.

How To Combat it:

  • Routine: Establishing a routine is always important. However, it’s even more so when you’re actively struggling with bouts of imbalanced hormones and moods. The creation of a routine and maintaining it is crucial to the protection of your natural circadian rhythm. The first step in the right direction would be to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. This helps balance hormone production as well as your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. Bye-bye, intensely groggy mornings! If you find yourself having a hard time falling asleep at night remember, you can’t control what time you fall asleep but you can control what time you wake up. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t dive right into waking up at 6 am if you naturally wake up at 9:30. But instead, start by setting your alarm 10 to 15 minutes earlier each day until you reach your desired time. And make sure you’re actually getting out of bed, not just lying there looking at your phone. Eventually, your sleep cycle should match up with this new schedule and hopefully, you’ll be able to fall asleep easier.

  • Exercise: We all know that exercising is good for you for a myriad of reasons. This may show my peak laziness but my favorite reason for exercise is better sleep. Exercise is a natural way to boost serotonin levels, which helps elevate mood and encourage appropriate sleep patterns. Try to find an activity that raises your heart rate that you actually enjoy. I feel like enjoyment should always be a priority when it comes to exercise and movement, but especially so when you’re already having a hard time motivating yourself. It’s easier to build activities into your schedule that you actually look forward to doing rather than feel obligated to do. I mean, I’ve never missed a wine night with friends but don’t ask me when the last time I went to the dentist was.

  • Get as much light as possible/Vitamin D: Since the majority of SAD symptoms come from the disruption of our natural circadian rhythms due to changes in sunlight, it would seem incredibly important to get as much natural light as possible in the winter. Exposing yourself to light during the day helps the body produce melatonin at the appropriate times of day, helping you to fall asleep at night. Additionally, this disruption in light exposure causes a natural decline in Vitamin D absorption, which impacts serotonin production. While you can get vitamin D through delicious egg yolks (like the ones we get here from Pinwheel Farms), fatty fish, mushrooms, and supplements, natural sunlight is best. We get roughly 90% of our vitamin D from the sunlight so no wonder we may feel a bit off in the winter.

  • Schedule (socially distanced) socialization: I say “schedule” because I’ve found it way too easy to make excuses for myself during Covid to not go somewhere. By scheduling an event you feel comfortable with you’re not only obviously more likely to do it, but also you’re more likely to not experience the level of social anxiety many of us are feeling these days with Covid-guilt. Socialization has been found to release oxytocin in the brain which helps release serotonin. Even when I’m feeling too tired to socialize, getting out and interacting with loved ones for just an hour or so always makes me feel better.

When you boil it all down, following a consistent routine seems like the best/most effective way to combat SAD. So while your body may be screaming to lay on the couch and watch a Law and Order marathon, it’s important to remember that getting up and out may be the best thing for your body and establishing a healthier circadian rhythm.

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