While a change in seasons definitely has some pluses (think beautiful fall colors and luxurious herbal lattes), there’s no denying that the clocks going back makes more than just the evenings feel darker.
Having less exposure to natural light during the daytime can have a big impact on your mood and actions: You might feel less motivated to work out, find it hard to stick to a regular work routine, and start peppering your text messages with excuses as to why you can’t socialize.
While we often assume these habits naturally go hand in hand with colder months, they could actually be a sign of a recurring health concern: major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern, which you probably know by its former name, seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
For years, it was thought that some people simply felt, well, sad during fall and winter. Blame it on the pitch-black wake-up calls and ventures to work in freezing-cold temperatures. When researchers started to dig into the phenomenon, they noticed a trend.
“SAD was identified in the early 1980s [and] in medical literature is now categorized as a form of depression that has a particular seasonal emphasis,” explains psychotherapist and counselor Grace Warwick. “It is significantly more associated with the movement into autumn and winter [but] can affect people in other seasons.”
The status of the condition may have been clarified, but the causes remain somewhat ambiguous.
“One theory is that it may be related to changes in the amount of daylight during the autumn and winter months, which can affect the levels of serotonin and melatonin in the brain and influence mood,” says Dr. Natasha Bijlani, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital Roehampton in London.
Warwick notes that the changing of the clocks also pushes our natural circadian rhythms out of whack, which can have notable effects on mental and physical health in both the short and long term.
If you’re concerned that you experience major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern, Bijlani says to look for out for these signs. Experiencing one or two symptoms from the list below probably isn’t enough to warrant concern, but if many of them look familiar, you should seek help from a doctor.
- low mood for most of the day
- increased need for sleep
- strong cravings for foods high in carbohydrates and sugar
- reduced ability to deal with stress
- frequent tense feelings
- lack of interest in sex
- increased feelings of guilt
- sense of hopelessness and despair
Read more about the stages of depression here and the physical effects of depression here.
Who gets it most
Research is ongoing to determine whether people with particular psychological profiles are at increased risk. But some factors are believed to increase your chances, says Warwick. These include:
- Living away from the equator. “It is more rare in those who live within 30 degrees of the equator, as daylight hours tend to be longer, constant, and generally bright,” says Bijlani.
- Genetics. If you have a family history of depression, you may be more likely to experience it.
- Being female. Women are four times more likely to experience it.
- Having depression or bipolar disorder. People with existing mental health concerns are more prone to it.
If left untreated, major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern can cause problems at work, put strain on relationships, and lead to suicidal thoughts. While you can’t turn back time, the good news is that you can take steps to help prevent and ease its symptoms.
If you have symptoms or think you might be at risk, talk to your doctor to put together a plan of action. With an array of treatments available, you don’t have to hunker down alone.
In the absence of natural sunlight, light boxes emit brightness at a level that positively affects our bodies — because that bedroom lamp just ain’t cutting it.
Scientific research supports their potential: A small 2009 study found that the moods of people with major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern improved after just 20 minutes of light exposure.
And a 2006 study found that light boxes alone reduced depression symptoms as well as light boxes plus fluoxetine (an antidepressant medication) but without the side effects.
However, Warwick recommends discussing this option with your doctor before buying a light box, especially if you have eye health issues, and ensuring that your light box doesn’t emit UV rays.
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Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
This form of talk therapy “enables the client to learn to observe their patterns of thoughts, moods, and behaviors and how these can all impact on each other to initiate and maintain low mood,” says Warwick.
A 2016 study found that, over a 2-year period, CBT proved more effective at keeping symptoms at bay compared to use of a light box. This suggests that CBT has the potential for long-term results.
If finding help sounds daunting, start by checking out our article on finding a therapist and our top picks for online therapy sites.
Medication is an option, just as it would be with nonseasonal depression. Thanks to their influence on serotonin in the brain, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like fluoxetine, sertraline, and fluvoxamine tend to be prescribed. Your doctor will be able to recommend the best medication for your symptoms.
Since low melatonin levels are thought to contribute to major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern, it makes sense that you’d want to top them up.
There’s no conclusive evidence that chewing on gummies will help combat the symptoms, but a small 2003 study found that people with the disorder who took 2 milligrams of melatonin before bed for 3 weeks saw improved levels of vitality and sleep quality.
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Vitamin D supplements
The jury’s still out on whether supplementation is effective for treating this condition, but we do know that people with major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern tend to have low levels of vitamin D.
And since vitamin D deficiency is associated with all sorts of health issues, taking the recommended 600 IU per day definitely won’t hurt — and may help quite a bit.
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Shopping link: NatureWise Vitamin D3 Softgels
Whether you’ve received a diagnosis of major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern or you simply want to fend off the general winter blues (who doesn’t?), some changes to your daily routine can make the seasonal transition a little easier.
Get all the sun you can
Depending on your work schedule, the clocks changing may mark the end of getting daylight after work and the beginning of bleak weather forecasts.
So, on the days the sun does come out, make it a priority to bundle up and take a lunchtime walk in the natural light. If you can’t get outside, move your desk or chair closer to the window.
And don’t forget that the sun’s UV rays can still penetrate clouds, so always apply a minimum SPF 30 sunscreen.
Move your body
Exercise encourages your brain to release endorphins (happy chemicals), so schedule regular workouts. The CDC recommends 150 minutes per week, but if that sounds daunting, just do the best you can.
Nourish with nutrients
It can also be very helpful to maintain a balanced diet. “Foods that are rich in a variety of vitamins [might be] helpful to help to ward off the symptoms of depression,” Bijlani says.
That doesn’t mean every single thing you eat needs to be geared toward your health (stress-eating is a very natural coping mechanism, after all). But when you plan meals or shop for groceries, make a habit of including some go-to fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and even fish.
If this sounds like a big change for you, start small with healthier snacks and work your way up to whole meals.
Make sleep a priority
Aim for 7 hours of sleep each night — but try to ditch the weekend lie-ins, adds Bijlani. “Staying in bed too long will limit your exposure to light, and your eyes need to take in light to withhold serotonin.”
Trouble sleeping? These tricks might help lull you to la-la land.
Keep in touch
“Be sociable,” says Bijlani. “Planning an evening or afternoon out with friends or relatives can be a really good way to give structure to your day and avoid loneliness and negative thoughts or feelings.” (Just keep your activities COVID-compliant.)
If you can’t meet in person, a simple phone call can help you feel equally connected. Consider arranging with your bestie or sibling to do a regular check-in — chances are they’ll appreciate the extra company too.
Set aside time daily to do something you love, whether it’s cozying up with your favorite show or getting lost in a book. Journaling can help you appreciate and recognize the good things, no matter how small. And getting into a new creative project is a great way to pass the time and rally feelings of accomplishment.
Be kind to yourself
Don’t feel guilty if you need more you-time, aren’t at your cheeriest, or see your productivity levels take a dive. This is a very real condition, and there’s no shame in seeking help if you need it. Just remember that you’re not alone and brighter times are (literally) around the corner.
Chantelle Pattemore is a writer and editor based in London, UK. She focuses on lifestyle, health, beauty, food, and fitness.