When the leaves start falling and the days get darker many of us struggle with feeling irritable and tired all the time – these are common symptoms of seasonal depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD). Shorter days and reduced sunlight have a significant impact on our mood. If you experience depression that follows a seasonal pattern, you might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which also can occur in the spring and summer. However, if you find yourself sleeping more and struggling to get out of bed when it’s still dark, it might be a case of the winter blues (subsyndromal SAD or S-SAD). Although both are often called “seasonal depression”, it’s important to distinguish which condition you are dealing with in order to treat it accordingly.
Facts and Figures:
About 6% of people in the US suffer from SAD, while more than twice as many (around 14%) have a milder version, i.e. the winter blues or S-SAD.(1) In German-speaking countries, 2.5% of the population suffers from SAD. The risk of seasonal depression is higher for people living in northern regions, women, and young people. (2) Recent studies and surveys show that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a serious negative impact on mental health around the world (3, 4, 5) – this could intensify the consequences and spread of seasonal depression this year.
Seasonal Depression or Winter Blues?
If you feel sluggish, irritable, or depressed in the cold, dark months of the year, you’re not alone. The reduced hours of daylight trigger these feelings.
Causes of Seasonal Depression
The hours and intensity of sunlight decrease in the fall and winter, which can have a negative impact on your mood. Why? Light influences the body’s hormone production. In a nutshell, when bright light hits your retina, your body produces more of the good-mood hormone, serotonin, and blocks the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin. The flip side of this is when you are exposed to less light in the fall and winter, melatonin is produced in greater amounts, which makes you want to stay in bed. And the lack of serotonin puts a real damper on your mood.
Symptoms: Seasonal Depression vs. Winter Blues
It’s important to distinguish between seasonal depression or SAD and the winter blues. The treatment varies depending on which symptoms you have and how long they last.
Typical symptoms of seasonal depression:
- Tired all the time
- Feeling lethargic
- Low energy
- Feeling agitated
- Appetite changes, cravings
- Becoming less sociable
- Neglecting your own needs
These symptoms last longer with seasonal depression, often for several weeks or months. If you are experiencing this, you should talk to your doctor right away.
Symptoms of the winter blues are less intense and only occur intermittently for a few days. The good news is that there’s something you can do to fight the winter blues. We’ve put together a list of simple tips and natural mood enhancers.
Mood Enhancers: 6 Tip to Fight the Winter Blues
1. Light up your life with a SAD lamp
Light therapy has the best success rate for treating the winter blues. Physicians prescribe it to treat seasonal depression. Special SAD lamps or light boxes are used in light therapy; depending on the intensity of the light, the recommended session time is 30-90 minutes a day.(6) They literally brighten your mood.
2. Get moving (outdoors)
Stimulate your circulation with an easy (and free) treatment: fresh air and exercise. Take a walk or a run outside – sunlight activates the release of serotonin in your body and prevents a vitamin D deficiency.
3. Stay hydrated
In the summer, we pay a lot of attention to staying hydrated. But you shouldn’t forget to get plenty of fluids when the weather turns cool: drinking too little water can slow down your metabolism and make you feel tired. Also, since you will be cranking up the heat indoors, your skin will be drier than in summer. That’s more than enough reason to drink a little extra water – your body will thank you for it.
4. Find your circadian rhythm
The shorter days in fall and winter can affect your circadian rhythm.Try to find a healthy rhythm where you get seven to nine hours of sleep per night. If you struggle to get out of bed in the morning, try these tips to become a morning person.
Good to know:
A differentiator to help you distinguish how serious your depression is: those who suffer from seasonal depression often sleep up to 12 hours at a time, go to bed early, and wake up early.
5. Transition to a fall diet
If you want to stay fit and healthy in the fall and winter, it’s important to adjust your diet. Focus on vitamin-rich and seasonal meals that strengthen your immune system and eat good-mood foods. These can include eggs, pumpkin, horseradish, wild-caught fish (salmon, herring, trout) and mushrooms.
6. Tune into your favorite music
Music is another great way to boost your mood and a fun antidote to the winter blues. Studies have shown that music can have a positive effect on your mental health and stimulate the production of the “feel-good” hormone serotonin. It can even temporarily reduce – or permanently eliminate – symptoms of depression. (7)
What are your tips for avoiding the winter blues? Let us know in the comments below – we’d love to hear your ideas!