Why S.A.D. makes us SAD: The science behind seasonal depression

Why S.A.D. makes us SAD: The science behind seasonal depression

Sydney Slaton, Editor-in-cheif

It’s no doubt that everyone gets sad, but the question this time of year is whether you get S.A.D. Seasonal Affective Disorder – otherwise known as S.A.D. or seasonal depression – is a form of depression related to the change in seasons. 

Symptoms of seasonal depression are similar to clinical depression in a lot of areas, but they don’t last the whole year. They include, feelings of sadness, loss of interest in your hobbies, low energy, trouble sleeping (too much, too little), craving carbohydrates, overeating, difficulty concentrating, feelings of hopelessness and thoughts of suicide. Seasonal depression often develops during fall and winter, but there are people who experience it in the spring and summer instead. The symptoms for both times of the year vary too. S.A.D. presents with oversleeping, craving carbohydrates, weight gain and low energy in the fall and winter. But in the spring and summer S.A.D. can present with insomnia, poor appetite, weight loss, anxiety and increased irritability. 

People with S.A.D. often experience it during fall and winter. Scientists have come up with three main theories as to why. The first being the lack of light disrupting your circadian rhythm; in the colder months, there is less light and scientists think that this lack is what causes many to become depressed. Scientists at the Mayo Clinic shed some light on how to help combat seasonal depression: phototherapy. Using a light box within the first few hours of waking up for around 30 minutes could improve symptoms. The right light box shouldn’t produce much UV light and should give off 10,000 lux of light, which is close to the ambient daylight we miss during the colder months. Mayo says your light box should be 16-24 inches away from your face, and that you do not need to be looking directly into the light box –just being in front of it should help. Of course, always talk to your doctor about the benefits and how best treatment can work for you. 

Reduced sunlight can also be the cause of another reason people get S.A.D.: serotonin levels –specifically a drop in serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating happiness and anxiety. Low levels of serotonin can lead you to feel anxious or depressed, hence the connection to seasonal depression. A few ways to boost serotonin are adjusting your diet, exercise and –of course– light therapy. The diet and exercise go hand in hand in that the goal of each method is the same. Tryptophan is found in a lot of foods like turkey, chicken or cheese and gets converted into serotonin in your brain. Exercise releases tryptophan into the bloodstream, once again getting converted into serotonin in the brain. 

Similarly to serotonin, melatonin levels can drop when the seasons change too. Low melatonin levels can obviously cause insomnia but also make you feel anxious. Many take melatonin supplements to help fall asleep but there are many things you can do throughout the day to help boost melatonin levels. Reducing screen time cuts back on the amount of blue light you’re exposed to before bed. Blue light has the biggest impact on melatonin compared  to other forms of light. You can also start dimming the lights in your house to wind down before bed. Being surrounded by bright lights up until you go to sleep can confuse your internal clock and make it harder to fall asleep.

It’s important to know the signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder and how to help cope with it. Things to look out for to make sure your seasonal depression isn’t getting worse are withdrawing from social activities, problems with school or work, substance abuse, other mental illnesses developing and suicidal thoughts. Know that you are not alone, roughly 233 million people suffer from S.A.D. Talk to your doctor about treatment and talk to your friends about your feelings, and always remember that the key word in seasonal depression is “seasonal;” it will most likely get easier as the year goes on.