Is seasonal depression real? A 2016 study says that seasonal depression doesn’t exist. And, major publications like Scientific American agree. However, Mark Aloia, a psychologist specializing in sleep medicine, says seasonal depression is real.
The truth may surprise you. Did you know that 60% of those who participate in trials for seasonal depression have NEVER been treated for depression? If so, that may explain the lack of consensus among health experts. In other words, if most sufferers never get treated, it’s easy to conclude that no seasonal modifier for depression exists.
But, ask yourself this: Do cloudy days and the changing of the leaves sap your mental energy? Conversely, do thoughts of summer beaches and spring flowers make you feel better? If so, you may suffer from seasonal or winter depression. There’s even “summer depression” (more on this later). According to the National Library of Medicine, 0.5 to 3% of individuals in America suffer from the disorder.
Seasonal depression is very real.
Not only does the National Institute of Mental Health consider seasonal depression a medical mood disorder, but there’s also a wealth of research — both neurological and psychological — backing up the impact of seasonal changes on our physical and mental wellbeing.
So, what is seasonal depression? How does it impact your brain and body? And, what can you do to help mitigate seasonal depression in your daily life?
What Is Seasonal Depression?
Seasonal depression, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a type of mood disorder that’s directly related to changes in seasons, sunlight, and weather. For most people with SAD, mood issues are cyclical and come and go around the same time each year.
Generally, these mood changes begin to occur in early August or September and continue until spring. However, there’s a rarer form of seasonal depression called Summer Onset Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) With Seasonal Pattern. It causes mood tension, sleeplessness, and loss of appetite during the spring and summer.
But, don’t most of us get the “winter blues”? Well, sort of. Winter does bring fewer hours of sunlight, which leads to a reduction in Vitamins C and D and other crucial sun-induced chemicals. This biochemical imbalance can cause many of us to feel less perky during the winter months. However, SAD goes well beyond the blues. The symptoms of SAD involve extreme mood changes that can interfere with daily life.
While the scientific community is almost completely in agreement that SAD is a very real disorder, there’s some disagreement on what causes it. A study points to SAD being associated with an extreme biochemical reaction to a reduction in daylight.
However, other research suggests that SAD may have more to do with how some people’s bodies respond to weather changes. Interestingly, there are even studies suggesting that summer SAD may be caused by post-holiday blues.
With so many unique factors converging together, how do you know if you have SAD? What if it’s just the “winter blues” or a post-holiday funk? The key is to understand what the main symptoms of SAD are.
Symptoms of Seasonal Depression
Like many mood disorders, SAD isn’t a one-size-fits-all disorder. You may experience a variety of symptoms when you suffer from SAD. In addition, there are differences in symptoms between summer and winter SAD. However, the most common symptoms of SAD include:
- Difficulty focusing or concentrating
- Reduced energy levels
- Changes in appetite
- The desire to be alone
- Oversleeping or undersleeping
- Weight gain or loss
- Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, or anxiety
Of course, everyone is unique, and you may have other symptoms related to SAD. The most important distinguishing factor between SAD and other types of anxiety disorders is that the former is related to the seasons. You’ll notice your symptoms come and go at relatively the same time every year, and you’ll likely be able to predict the onset of SAD symptoms quite accurately.
The Science Behind SAD
SAD is a relatively common mood disorder. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 6.8% of U.S. adults suffer from seasonal depression. Furthermore, around 15% of the population suffers from sub-syndromal SAD (mild, non-clinical SAD). So, it shouldn’t be too surprising that there’s a wealth of research about SAD.
Specifically, SAD impacts multiple layers of the nervous system. Levels of serotonin — the chemical that controls mood — are lower in those that suffer from SAD. Our retinas are pre-wired to send signals to our brains when they come into contact with blue light waves from the sun.
This tells the brain to halt melatonin production and increase serotonin production. The raphe nuclei (the serotonin hub) is triggered fewer times during darker months. For some individuals, this lack of stimulation may be severe enough to cause clinically low serotonin levels, resulting in many of the symptoms that arise with seasonal affective disorder.
Additionally, lack of sunlight can cause disruption in the circadian rhythm, interrupt melatonin production, and even cause chaos for our dopamine and norepinephrine receptors. In other words, sunlight plays a critical role in our physical and mental wellbeing, but some people need more than others.
In Iceland, researchers have noticed that few residents suffer from SAD — their resistance to winter depression continues even after they move to new countries. This may be due to genetic wiring that releases adequate hormones and chemicals despite the lack of sunlight in winter.
Combating Seasonal Depression Naturally
We’re nature evangelists. And, we always recommend natural cures before resorting to allopathic medicine. However, extreme forms of SAD may require medication, and if natural treatments aren’t having any impact on you, consider a consultation with your psychiatrist or psychologist.
1) Lifestyle Changes
If you suffer from seasonal affective disorder, you may find it challenging to integrate exercise into your daily life. However, making key lifestyle changes is a surefire way to help yourself feel better. The more outdoor exercise you can get (especially in natural sunlight), the less severe your SAD symptoms will be — even if you have to take baby steps at first.
Try to soak up all the sunlight you can during the winter. Even in the smallest doses, sunlight can alleviate many SAD symptoms. Remember, SAD is the result of biochemical imbalances in the body. Studies show that exercise is a powerful deterrent against the onset of SAD — just 20 minutes of daily exercise in the sunshine is enough to reduce the risk of recurrent depression.
In fact, a study of 202 adults with major depressive disorder (MDD) reported that 45% of participants who participated in daily supervised exercise achieved remission. After participating in regular, organized group exercise, they no longer meet the criteria for MDD.
Lifestyle Recommendations to Help You Cope With SAD:
- Take a walk by yourself, with a friend, or with your pet in the morning or mid-day.
- Drink your morning cup of coffee on the porch.
- Open your blinds during the daytime or spend more time on outdoor activities during the winter.
- Try to get at least 30-minutes of moderate physical exercise five days a week.
- Consider taking up an active hobby such as sports, gardening, or woodworking.
The main point is to spend more time in the sunshine and more time exercising. You can do that any way you like. Don’t let guilt take over: You don’t need to run, sprint, or lift weights to “exercise.” If that’s your favorite way to get active, go for it. However, if you prefer gardening or taking a walk with the dog, that’s ok, too.
Don’t let the fear of not “going all-in” prevent you from taking those first baby steps or enjoying exercise the way you like it.
We know that SAD can be debilitating. You probably feel like exercise is the last thing you want to do right now. But, we promise it helps. And, once you get started, you’ll be hooked!
2) Dietary Changes
Choosing the right foods is key to not only combating SAD but also improving your overall quality-of-life. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Health experts say that 44 million Americans go on a diet each year.
However, 95% of them fail to achieve their objectives. In other words, dieting is one of the single hardest things you can do.
So, be kind to yourself. If you’re already struggling with low energy and sleeplessness, there’s no reason to jump head-first into a trendy diet that forces you to gorge on raw nuts, tofu, and broccoli scraps.
Start off slow. If you think you’ve been eating too much red meat (which has been shown to exacerbate depression in some people), cut down on those steaks. Does that mean you have to ditch meat altogether? No. Ask Your Body™, and go with what it tells you.
In other words, you don’t have to double up on blueberries, kale salads, and spinach smoothies. Simple changes can make all the difference. Pay attention to the following nutrients when designing your meal plan (or ordering take out):
- Vitamin B12: Meats
- Beta-carotene: Carrots, broccoli, peaches, sweet potato, pumpkins
- Vitamin C: Broccoli, blueberries, peppers, strawberries
- Selenium: Legumes, beans, low-fat dairy, seafood, whole grains
- Vitamin D: Fish, sardines, mackerel, liver, egg yolks
- Vitamin E: Nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Fish, flax seeds, nuts, leafy greens
3) Full-Spectrum Hemp Oil
Believe it or not, Hemp Oil may be your ace-in-the-hole for treating SAD. Beyond the wealth of anecdotal evidence surrounding Hemp Oil and mood disorder treatment, there’s a fair chunk of science backing up its efficacy.
First, your body has a complex biological system known as an endocannabinoid system.
Your endocannabinoid system contains CB1 and CB2 receptors, as well as a variety of other microbiological components. In fact, CB1 receptors are the most abundant neuro-modulatory receptors in your body. There are more endocannabinoid receptors in your body than all other receptors combined. So, it’s safe to say that your endocannabinoid system plays a critical role in your body.
From memory to metabolism, appetite, and the immune response, endocannabinoid receptors have been scientifically proven to be critical to physical and mental wellbeing. And, as the name suggests, endocannabinoid receptors respond to cannabinoids — the compounds found in the hemp plant.
In total, there are over 100 cannabinoids present in hemp. Obviously, the two most popular cannabinoids are Cannabidiol (CBD) and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). These two yin-yang compounds get most of the media attention. THC is the cannabinoid responsible for the “high” you get from marijuana. Meanwhile, CBD is responsible for the stress reduction benefits of many natural health products. But, those are only two compounds in hemp. There are others, and each of them plays a synergistic role in our bodies.
Hemp and Mood
According to research, Hemp Oil — which contains under 0.3% THC — can play a significant role in controlling mood. Mouse-based research suggests that Hemp Oil regulates serotonin uptake, and human studies suggest that Hemp Oil can help regulate mood. This all happens due to hemp’s interaction with our endocannabinoid system.
Those 100+ phytocannabinoids (plant-based cannabinoids) in hemp all play a synergistic role in our bodies. Research on the endocannabinoid system is ongoing, but there’s already convincing evidence that consuming a variety of these cannabinoids (as opposed to using isolates like CBD) creates a synergistic response that brings a wealth of benefits.
If you’re struggling with SAD or another mood disorder, supplementing with Hemp Oil may help alleviate your symptoms. Combined with diet and exercise, Hemp Oil has the very real potential to boost energy levels, reduce SAD symptoms, and help you regain control of your life during those frigid winter months.
4) Light Therapy
What happens when you work during the day when the sun is out? During winter, that’s entirely possible. In this case, exercising in the sun or opening blinds may not do you much good. Instead, consider using light therapy. Lightboxes can mimic sunlight and give your body the sunlight-driven boost it needs to function ideally.
Research shows that even short exposure to light therapy can help relieve mood disorders. In Alaska, artificial sunlight bulbs are a mainstay. After all, the state is famous for its long winters. In fact, residents in Barrow, the northernmost town in Alaska, don’t see the sun for 67 straight days in winter. Alaskans dub lightboxes “happy lights,” which measure at 10,000 lux (intensity of light) at 14 to 30 inches from a user’s eyes.
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