I’ve done my best to love winter. I participate in every winter activity I can find. Snowshoeing, crosscountry skiing, snowboarding, sledding, etc. I also have a fondness for hot toddys, cozy socks, and fireplaces. I usually love winter for the first few months. The chill is a nice change from the heat and smoke of Montana summers. But inevitably, the bitter cold and the short days start to wear on me.
I usually feel my Seasonal Affective Disorder creep in around December. It’s subtle at first. Maybe I sleep longer. Maybe I eat less healthy foods. Maybe I have one too many hot toddys. Around January I feel like winter will never end. And in Montana, that isn’t entirely untrue. We deal with long winters around this area.
By February, I’ve lost my lust for exercise. My anxiety gets stronger. I’m depending on caffeine more than ever to just get through the day. I’m less patient. I’m just…sad.
I’ve lived with this for most of my life. I always just assumed that I was the kind of person that cycles through depression. Until I realized that Seasonal Affective Disorder is shared by many millions of people and is entirely treatable.
Do you have these Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder or Seasonal Depression?
For those who already deal with some form of depression, the lack of sunlight can amplify existing anxiety or depressive symptoms.
The symptoms of SAD are very similar to other types of depression. It is distinguished by your depression usually starting during the change of season and ending at the change of a season. Here are some symptoms to be mindful of in yourself or others:
- trouble waking up
- weight gain
- unusually strong craving for carb-rich foods
- mood swings
- feeling hopeless
- feeling guilty without reason
- loss of interest in activities you usually participate in
- dependence on drugs or alcohol
What are the causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Many of the causes for increase anxiety or depression during the winter months are clearly linked to the shorter days. Our bodies and minds naturally align with the sun cycle & primarily our absorption of Vitamin D. Vitamin D & light fluctuations help regulate our circadian rhythms (thyroid) as well as melatonin & serotonin production (pineal gland).
The problem is….you are probably already Vitamin D deficient right now. Vitamin D deficiency affects as many as 41% of adults. Those numbers go way up when you have darker skin. This is mostly because the sun is our primary source of vitamin D aside from a handful of food sources.
Vitamin D helps regulate thyroid hormones in our system – which is our inner gauge for setting our energy levels and weight. Similarly, the pineal gland produces the sleep hormone (melatonin) based on how much light you are exposed to. The shorter days of winter mean you may experience an over-production of melatonin which can lead to drowsiness and fatigue. Likewise, shorter days are linked to an under-production of the “happy” hormone – serotonin. What you have, is the perfect mess of hormone chaos. As a result, when we have less sun in our lives, we tend to feel less sunny ourselves.
What can you do about it?
Knowledge is the first step. Understand your symptoms and know when and how to identify them.
For some, SAD kicks in as soon as the seasons change. For others, it may take a few weeks for us to notice significant changes in our demeanor, energy levels, or weight. Whatever the trigger, be self-aware and pro-active against your symptoms rather than ignoring them or reacting to them.
The next step is to seek preventative care.
Learning what I was experiencing made a huge difference in my ability to recognize my SAD. For me, depression tends to creep in slowly, often feeling like my “normal” until I take the time to reflect. Lucky for me, I made a commitment years ago to getting regular acupuncture treatments.
Incidentally, I was seeking acupuncture for something completely different than anxiety or depression. However, seeking regular treatments kept me accountable to my health. Every 6 weeks, I had someone asking me how I had been feeling, if I noticed any changes in my mood, weight, sleep, health, or if I felt “normal”. That’s when I started noticing a pattern.
I started to realize that, “Hey! This isn’t normal. I haven’t always been sad. I was definitely happier a few weeks ago.”
That’s when I started actively seeking treatment to help prevent my symptoms as soon as I recognized them coming on. Regular acupuncture treatments helped me avoid the Winter Weight and emotional slump I had grown accustom to each winter season.
How does acupuncture treat SAD?
The benefit of acupuncture is that it is a holistic treatment that focuses on the person as a whole. It also tends to focus intently on the root of the problem by aiming to regulate and balance the hormones. It works with the body to allow for natural healing rather than supplementation. Acupuncture can function both as an acute treatment for significant and severe symptoms as well as a preventative measure to avoid the onset of chronic depression or anxiety.
Depending on your practitioner, previous health profile, and history of depression, your acupuncturist could take numerous treatment routes to help you with your Seasonal Affective Disorder or anxiety.
I have also learned to embrace the change of seasons and maintain perspective.
While this article primarily focuses on the Winter side of SAD, summer SAD happens as well.