Changes in seasons can sometime correspond with changes in mood. In some people, this natural connection between emotions and the…
Changes in seasons can sometime correspond with changes in mood. In some people, this natural connection between emotions and the weather can develop into a condition called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
Dr. Samar McCutcheon, assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, says that “seasonal affective disorder is diagnosed when a person with a mood disorder experiences a mood episode during the same season each year, for at least two years in a row.”
She adds that SAD is “not a disorder in and of itself, but rather a specifier called ‘with seasonal pattern’ that we add to an existing diagnosis like major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder.”
While most people think of SAD as depression during the winter months, it can actually take a variety of forms, McCutcheon notes. “The mood episodes a person experiences can be depression or mania; however, the most common seasonal pattern episode is winter depression.”
Symptoms of SAD
Susan Albers, a psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, says that SAD typically manifests as “feeling blue or depressed during the winter months. The symptoms appear to be similar to depression but in a milder form and often pass when the season changes again.” Symptoms may include:
— Feeling sad or down.
— Feeling unmotivated.
— Experiencing shifts in your normal sleeping patterns.
— Experiencing changes in appetite.
— Losing interest in things you previously enjoyed.
— Having difficulty focusing or concentrating.
— Having low energy.
— Experiencing a sudden increase in emotional eating.
“In extreme cases, it can spiral into feeling hopeless or suicidal,” Albers says.
Sometimes referred to as the winter blues or the winter doldrums, SAD can actually go much deeper than that, says Dr. Paul Nestadt, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Anxiety Disorders Clinic and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
“It’s a mood disorder, much like major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder.” Whereas most people probably feel a little blah sometime in the winter, SAD is when that normal down feeling becomes more problematic. “It has a critical feel to it. That’s usually a marker of severity or dysfunction,” he says.
“I often see my patients at the exact same time each year,” Albers adds, as the symptoms happen predictably every year at the same time. “They say things like, ‘I’m just feeling really down. I’m having a hard time getting up in the morning. I just don’t feel like doing anything.’”
For people who are more vulnerable to periods of depression in the fall and winter, it may well be SAD at work.
What Causes SAD?
The American Psychiatric Association reports that SAD affects about 5% of Americans, and it usually lasts for about 40% of the year. But it’s unclear exactly why it occurs and why some people experience it while others don’t.
“There are several theories about the causes of winter depression including changes to circadian rhythms that occur with seasonal variations in sunlight, genetic risk and biochemical changes to the levels and processing of serotonin and melatonin in the brain,” McCutcheon says. Those neurotransmitters are critical to maintaining balance in the brain, and fluctuations in their levels can affect your moods.
“People who have had other mental health issues in the past like depression or anxiety can often be more susceptible to SAD,” Albers says. “Also, people who are experiencing stress or a significant change in their lives. These conditions also impact your serotonin levels, which are the feel-good chemicals in the brain.”
Nestadt notes that “lifestyle changes” that occur as the temperatures fall, such as heading indoors, socializing less frequently or getting less exercise can also contribute to symptoms of SAD.
Changes in dietary habits can be both a trigger and a result of SAD. “We tend to eat more carbohydrates” in the cooler months Nestadt says. Think comfort food. While it may feel soothing in the moment, reaching for that mac and cheese meal might actually be contributing to your feelings of seasonal affective disorder.
A sharp increase in emotional eating or carbohydrate cravings is also a “telltale sign” of SAD, Albers says. “A client recently admitted that as soon as fall began they were craving carbs and sweets 24/7.”
She adds that “a 2020 study indicated that people who start to feel the blues during the fall due to shorter days, also have a significant change in their eating habits. Eleven studies were reviewed and found that people who feel blue during the fall and winter months consume significantly larger dinners as well as more evening snacks during the weekdays and weekends. They also demonstrate a higher frequency of binge and emotional eating, more cravings for starchy food and high-fiber foods.”
Eating Right Can Improve Symptoms
Albers says that for her patients, she recommends a shift in diet to help combat SAD. “I say, ‘just like you change your outfit to coincide with the season and weather, it may be time to consider updating what you eat to align with the season and to prevent the emotional eating that accompanies SAD.’”
There’s little doubt that we get emotional feedback from the things we eat, but how exactly that impacts conditions like SAD is still unclear. “It’s tempting to jump to conclusions with nutritional science because of the way that studies of diet are done. They’re kind of all over the place,” Nestadt says. However, he says some of the basic tenets of eating right can make a big difference in this arena. In particular, he says limiting your intake of highly processed foods may help. “It’s clear that food plays a role in mental health in general, and we know that the gut microbiome is incredibly important for how mood is regulated in general.”
Beyond seasonal affective disorder specifically, “with mood in general we see an association with things like low vitamin D and low mood,” Nestadt says. “There have been studies done that say the same thing for omega-3s — that people who are not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids might be more vulnerable to lower moods or actual depression.”
Given the current state of knowledge, to help combat SAD, you may want to boost your intake of the following items:
— Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Foods such as wild salmon, pasture-raised eggs and walnuts are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which can support mood.
— Herbal teas. Is there anything more soothing than a steaming cup of herbal tea on a dreary winter day? Chai teas that also contain spices like cinnamon and ginger can lend a sense of warmth and comfort that may be soothing if you’re not feeling so great. And it’s a delicious way to hydrate.
— Cinnamon. “Cinnamon is clinically shown to help regulate your blood sugar, which ultimately can assist you in avoiding spikes in your blood sugar, which can lead to craving sugary foods,” Albers says. “Also, the scent of cinnamon is calming. Sprinkle cinnamon in your coffee, on yogurt or sip it in tea.”
— Fresh produce and a balanced diet. During the winter months, you should try to keep up with the healthy food habits that seem to come so easily during the summer. Eat a balanced diet and be sure to include good fats like avocados, nuts and olive oil. These fats can help you feel fuller longer and may discourage overeating or carbohydrate cravings.
— High-fiber foods. “It’s important to have a high-fiber diet because of its anti-inflammatory properties,” Nestadt says. “We think that some types of…
Read More:Foods and Activities to Fight SAD | WTOP