Have you noticed feeling more tired or sluggish, losing or gaining weight, feeling more depressed, or losing interest in normal activities? (This is, of course, in addition to all the other feelings you might have right now regarding the pandemic and the lockdown.) Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression usually seen in late fall or early winter due to shortened days and lack of sunlight, can affect your mood and energy. It’s similar to wanting to hibernate: oversleeping, overeating, and avoiding other people.
Researchers don’t know exactly what causes SAD. Some think it has to do with a decreased level of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps regulate your mood. Sunlight influences the molecules which maintain serotonin levels. With less access to sunlight, you may be getting less serotonin. Other research suggests that people with SAD have too much melatonin, which is a hormone that maintains your normal wake-sleep cycle. Overproduction of melatonin can cause increased sleepiness, which, along with a decrease in serotonin, can disrupt your daily rhythm and lead to sleep, mood, and behavioral changes.
There appears to be a correlation between the incidence of SAD and lower vitamin D levels, which leads to lower serotonin levels. Vitamin D can be obtained from both sunlight and supplementation. There has been a disturbing percentage of Americans with low vitamin D levels, but especially now with people staying home for the last eight months. Vitamin D helps strengthen your lungs so you can breathe better and helps prevent respiratory diseases.
So what can you do about preventing or dealing with SAD? First of all, prevention is the best defense, so increase your vitamin D levels with 15 minutes of sunlight per day. It doesn’t have to be direct sunlight, just indirect light. You may also take a vitamin D supplement on the days you don’t go outside, between 10 and 20 mcg depending on your age. The older you get, the more you need. This coincides with the second strategy, which is light therapy. Here in Southern California, we don’t need this as much as our northern neighbors, but with the lockdown, more people are staying indoors, so sitting in front of a “lightbox” for about 30 minutes can boost your vitamin D levels. This type of light filters out UV rays, which can cause skin damage in some people with pre-existing conditions.
Engaging in “talk therapy,” such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), helps those with SAD to focus on replacing negative thoughts related to winter with behavioral activation, which encourages identifying and scheduling pleasant and engaging activities. Lastly, some medications can help with depression, but I would approach this strategy as a last resort. The easiest, most cost-effective way to reduce the onset of SAD is to get outside and do something fun or purposeful. Be well.
For a list of resources or to ask any questions, feel free to contact Dr. Ben Griffes, M.A., D.C., at www.bengriffesdc.com.