It’s another overcast winter day and I can’t remember the last time the sun shone through this dark and gloomy blanket of clouds. This weather doesn’t really evoke a cheery atmosphere.
Have you ever sat there reminiscing about how good it feels to have the sun on your face and how bleak it can be when it rains for three consecutive days? While our mood can be impacted by the weather and changing seasons, some individuals experience a drastic change to their mental health and well-being in the winter months. Although our move into winter is marked by holiday cheer, the remainder of the season can often feel dreary, dismal, and depressing.
With a change in the seasons, our internal biological clock also changes according the amount of daily sunlight. This “clock” regulates our circadian (daily) rhythm, which controls our sleep/wake cycle, mood, and appetite among other functions. In the winter months, it is thrown off because rather than following the natural day-night cycle – waking up with the sun and sleeping when it sets – we artificially prolong our days with electricity. As a result, we are no longer reliant on the daily cycle of light and darkness as our ancestors were for thousands of years.
For this very reason, we are out of sync with our internal biological clocks, as they may still be telling us to sleep earlier in the winter months, when the sun sets. To explain this further, I need to get a bit more technical here (so bear with me!). Essentially, reduced sunlight has an impact on our serotonin and melatonin levels, both of which effect one’s circadian rhythm. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects our mood, so much so that reduced levels can cause depression. With less daily sunlight, serotonin levels fall. Melatonin on the other hand is a hormone related to sleep and mood that increases in the dark, so it is overproduced when the days shorten, causing tiredness, fatigue, and sleepiness.
This “un-syncing” of our internal biological clock with our external day/night clock has an impact on our mental health and well-being, as some individuals experience “the winter blues”. At the extreme end, others may experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – winter type. SAD is a psychological condition classified in the DSM-V as a subtype of depression, characterized as a “recurring major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern”. Thus, SAD deeply impacts a person’s ability to live their life to their full potential.
In Canada, 15% of the population experiences the winter blues, while 2-3% suffer from SAD. Individuals who suffer with SAD, constitute 10% of all who suffer from depression. At risk are people who reside in countries where the day becomes shorter in the winter, individuals between 20-50 years old, women, and those with a family history of SAD, depression, or bipolar disorder.
Common symptoms of SAD include:
- Decreased interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Difficulty socializing
- Weight gain and a change in appetite – craving sweet and/or starchy foods
- Lethargy, difficulty sleeping or oversleeping, incapacitating fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating and increased irritability
- Feelings of anxiety and despair, worthlessness, and/or guilt
The symptoms for SAD are similar to those of other types of depression and bipolar disorder. You may be suffering from SAD (winter-type) if you experienced these symptoms in the winter months for at least two consecutive years, with them disappearing in spring. A common tool used to determine if one has SAD is The Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire (SPAQ), which can be obtained from http://www.guilford.com/add/forms/rosenthal2.pdf. In the event that you believe you suffer from SAD, please seek immediate medical attention and contact your family doctor.
Luckily, there are several effective ways one can combat the winter blues and beat SAD, including:
- Regular exercise
- A nutritious and well-balanced diet
- Learning relaxation techniques (e.g. meditation)
- Maintaining social ties
- Maintaining a regular sleep schedule
- Making your environment brighter by opening blinds and sitting near a window
- Making time to go outside everyday
- Travelling to a sunny destination for vacation
- Taking vitamin D
- Light therapy
- Psychological therapy (e.g. cognitive-behavioural therapy