Winters can be harsh, especially on our mental health. The good news? There are physiological reasons why the fall and winter months can be challenging, other than the temperature. One reason is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
SAD is a mood disorder characterized by low energy, depression, problems sleeping, and appetite changes. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), SAD impacts an estimated 1 in 30 Americans. As a visual, imagine the entire population of Michigan or five times the amount of people diagnosed with cancer each year. That’s a lot of sad people.
Additionally, individuals with alcohol use disorder may experience increased drinking rates in attempts to self-medicate during the winter months. Researchers found that individuals with mental health conditions consume 20 percent more alcohol, 27 percent more cocaine, and 86 percent more cigarettes than the general population (National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2019).
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
- Decreased sunlight
- Reduced serotonin production
- Shorter days
Although the specific causes of SAD are unknown, there are multiple factors at play that dictate our happiness in the winter months. In the 1980s, Norman Rosenthal, M.D., worked at the National Institute of Mental Health as a researcher and was curious about his own winter “moods.” Living in the northeastern USA, Dr. Rosenthal was interested in how the rates of depression correlated with the seasons. He discovered that circadian rhythm or our internal “biological clock” was disrupted by decreased sunlight in the winter months, leading to depression and problems sleeping. Additionally, reduced sunlight also causes a dip in the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is partially responsible for mood stability, feelings of well-being, and happiness.
Are There Risk Factors of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Several risk factors influence the development of SAD. First, a pre-existing mood disorder, such as depression, or bipolar disorder, plays a role. Individuals with bipolar disorder may experience cycles of depression when sunlight exposure decreases and hypomania or mania when spring and summer roll around. Living in a regional area with shorter days and reduced sunlight and a family history of depression of SAD are also risks. Finally, SAD impacts more females than males, yet males have more severe symptoms overall. Mood disorders such as SAD have additional adverse effects on LGBTQIA individuals and the population with substance use disorders. They can experience more familial and social isolation in the winter months, particularly around the holidays.
What’s the Good News?
The good news is that substance use and mood disorders are treatable. Dr. Michael Kane, Indiana Center for Recovery’s medical director, offers the following insight:
“At least 80% of our patients have a co-occurring mental health condition. Taking an antidepressant with adherence to the prescription, getting physical activity regularly, and community connections are crucial to recovery.” Dr. Kane says that only 5 minutes of high-intensity cardio each week can help you feel more energized and happy. Individuals with mood disorders at the Indiana Center for Recovery to eat a healthy diet and get plenty of sleep by restricting caffeine intake as much as possible to increase the likelihood of recovery.
Dr. Kane states that most individuals have low vitamin-D levels and could benefit from taking 2,000 units of Vitamin D per day without “reaching toxicity levels.” He warns that using tanning beds for mood may produce short-term effects, but these do not outweigh the risks associated with skin cancer. Using a 10,000-lux light box at 16 to 24 inches from your face for at least 20 to 30 minutes each morning can provide the same benefits without the risks. It might sound fancy, but ask your doctor which product they recommend, and you’ll be surprised to find out how common they are.
Nobody should suffer alone during the winter months. We hope we have shined a light on the problem of SAD and tips recommended by our outstanding medical director. If you struggle with your mood in the winter months, know that you’re not alone. If you turn to substances to cope, please call us today to learn how to start your journey to healing.
National Institute of Mental Health, Seasonal Affective Disorder, retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml
National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 2019