Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, was once considered a fluke.
Now, medical experts have a better understanding of why gray skies, cold winds, and a lack of warm sun on your body makes a difference in your disposition.
Also known as seasonal or winter depression, SAD presents symptoms in the same season each year—usually between September and March. People affected by SAD notice changes in mood, weight, sleep patterns, concentration, and eating habits. There’s also a less common but still observed summer SAD that affects some people.
Researchers say you’re probably suffering from a winter pattern of SAD if:
- For at least two consecutive years, you experience the above changes during the fall and winter months, but get better when spring arrives.
- The changes you go through include sleeping a lot more, craving carbohydrates and having an increased appetite, and feeling more anxious or depressed than usual.
- You’re not inclined to socialize and prefer to “hibernate.”
And evidence suggests a summer pattern of SAD if:
- Each spring and summer, you feel more “hyped-up,” restless, and agitated, but calm down with the onset of fall and winter.
- You suffer from seasonal insomnia.
- You experience rapid weight loss due to a poor appetite.
SAD can happen to anyone, and is troublesome when it does. But when you’re focused on maintaining sobriety, these seasonal changes may feel like “one more thing!” you have to manage. Fortunately, with knowledge, you can spot the cyclical differences before they become a problem and make simple changes to your routine to stay on top of your health.
Risk Factors for SAD
If you’re on a path of recovery and notice a decline in your mood and healthy habits when the days get shorter, it’s possible you’re suffering from SAD. Studies indicate that addiction relapse often occurs during the winter if you have some of the risk factors for SAD, including:
- You have a pre-disposition for depression or bipolar disorder
- You have a close biological relative who also has SAD or depression
- You’re a woman
- You’re between 15 and 55
- You live far away from the equator, or don’t visit sunny locations in winter
The National Institute of Mental Health indicates that direct causes for SAD are still under research, but three key aspects are common in people with SAD:
Too much melatonin. The dark days of winter increase the production of melatonin, which controls sleep patterns. A higher amount may disrupt circadian rhythms.
Trouble regulating serotonin. Studies indicate that some people have an uptick with serotonin transporter protein in the winter vs. the summer, which means less serotonin—the “good mood” chemical—cycles effectively through the brain.
Not enough vitamin D. Known as the “sunshine hormone”, your body produces vitamin D from sunlight, which helps improve serotonin production. Few foods are naturally rich in vitamin D—you need to expose bare skin to ultraviolet B (UVB) rays on a regular basis.
What You Can Do
Knowledge is power when it comes to managing your health effectively, and the medical community’s acceptance of SAD plays a big part in providing solutions for it.
Take a vitamin D supplement. To help control the symptoms of winter SAD, start taking vitamin D in the fall. Most doctors recommend a D3 supplement over D2. D3 is easily used by the body, and studies report this may improve its impact. D2 is often added to milk and cereals, and this may reduce its effectiveness. Sunlight provides about 10,000 IUs of vitamin D for optimum performance. Most over-the-counter supplements offer 2,000–5,000 IUs per dose.
Light therapy. Since SAD was first diagnosed in the 1980s, physicians used light therapy to provide a vital sunlight boost and help regulate the body’s biological clock. People have specialized light boxes for either bright light treatment, which they sit by for 20-60 minutes; or dawn simulation, a system that gradually introduces light while you sleep until you awaken with the brighter intensity.
Cognitive behavioral therapy. A skilled therapist can work with you before the onset of SAD or during an episode. Techniques may include knowing how to identify negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones; incorporating enjoyable activities, whether outside or inside; and improving winter coping skills.
Exercise regularly. Sure, you might have to deal with lethargy at first, but making time for moderate exercise will naturally boost your mood and improve your immune system. If you don’t feel like going outside, take a walk around a loop in a gym, mall, or hospital. Go for swim, or use a stationary bike with a video screen of an outdoor path. Strength training twice a week helps, too.
If depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorders are present, some medical professionals may recommend a temporary change in treatment medication to weather the effects of SAD. Remember: never change your medication without the guidance and directive of your attending physician.
Finally, it’s important to stay in touch with the support systems that helped you achieve sobriety. Even if you don’t feel like socializing, use the strength you’ve gained through your journey so far to reach out to people one-on-one who understand what you’re dealing with, and use this reinforcement to stay committed to wellness.
WebMD: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – Topic Overview.
Mountain Laurel Recovery Center: Weathering Recovery During Winter.
The Aviary: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Addiction.