Written by Kristen J. Smith
In a word, yes. We’re entering the most wonderful time of the year, but that doesn’t ring true for everyone. For some, the cold months bring with them less sunlight and increased fatigue and stress. Seasonal depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is something that many people suffer from. But how do you know the difference between a slight change in behavior and full-blown SAD?
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
First, let’s take a look at how Seasonal Affective Disorder is defined. SAD is a form of depression, usually prompted by a change in seasons. In most cases, it begins in the fall and escalates in the winter months. SAD symptoms include:
- Depressive mood (lasts all or most of the day for multiple consecutive days)
- Loss of interest in daily activities
- Increase in appetite (usually an intake of excess carbs)
- Feelings of worthlessness
SAD affects approximately 5% of US adults and 75% of those affected are women. SAD is also more prevalent in young adults. You are at higher risk for SAD if you have been diagnosed with another depressive disorder, have a family history of mental illness, or live in northern latitudes such as New England or Alaska.
The Winter Blues
Do you feel tired and unmotivated when it’s time to start cranking up the heat? You’re not alone. The colder weather coupled with a decrease in sunlight often leads to a shift in habits. This shift causes you to spend more time inside and that’s completely normal. So, get off WebMD! Winter blues is not a medical diagnosis. It is a general term used to describe much milder symptoms, such as feelings of sadness and fatigue. These symptoms subside on their own and are often triggered by specific occurrences, for example, holiday stress or the absence of loved ones. About 10% to 15% of US adults experience winter blues, yet the symptoms tend to be short-lived. It’s normal to feel a little gloomy or sad because of these changes.
Are Black Women at Higher Risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder?
There are many theories on the causes of SAD, but there are no definitive conclusions. Some potential factors include Vitamin D deficiency, obesity, chemical imbalance, and melatonin increase. If we focus on how SAD can affect black women, Vitamin D deficiency is an important variable to pay attention to. Studies show that 96% of Americans are Vitamin D deficient. Serotonin, a hormone that positively affects mood, increases with Vitamin D production. A decrease in mood is often related to a lack of Vitamin D caused by less sunlight. You’re also more likely to experience depressive symptoms if you are Vitamin D deficient. Your Vitamin D levels tend to reach their peak in August and are at their lowest in February. This timeline coincides with both winter blues and SAD symptoms.
Here’s where melanated individuals need to pay attention. People with higher levels of melanin need more time in the sun to reach optimal levels of Vitamin D compared to those with less melanin. This leaves people of color at a greater risk for Vitamin D deficiency. Based on the prevalence of SAD among women, and the probable role Vitamin D deficiency plays, black women are at higher risk for developing SAD. Studies show that the more skin pigment, the greater risk for Vitamin D deficiency and other psychological conditions. The darker your skin complexion the higher the risk.
Although there are many potential causes of SAD, there are also a few simple ways to counter SAD symptoms.
How to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder
Now that you know what Seasonal Affective Disorder is, let’s review some of the steps you can take to help combat the effects. These steps are effective regardless of your complexion. The good news is you’re not doomed simply because you have dark skin and live in New England. Below are three simple and inexpensive ways to combat SAD this season.
Increase Your Vitamin D
Vitamin D is not actually a vitamin, but a hormone. Tricky. Your body produces “Vitamin” D through a chemical reaction that occurs when sunlight hits your skin. Your kidneys produce this hormone to regulate the calcium in your blood.
An essential way to increase your vitamin D levels during the winter is to eat more Vitamin D rich foods such as:
- Salmon (wild-caught is much higher in Vitamin D than farmed)
- Herring and Sardines
- Cod Liver Oil
- Whole eggs
- Vitamin D fortified foods (orange juice, milk, cereal etc.)
If you’re interested in taking a Vitamin D supplement, reach out to your healthcare provider before starting any vitamin regimen. Whether you decide to supplement or not, one thing is for sure; food is the most bioavailable source of any vitamin or mineral you’re seeking to increase. When in doubt, seek to solve your deficiencies with nutrition.
Exercise — The Ultimate Seasonal Depression Treatment
If you’re tired of hearing about how diet and exercise are important for your physical health, I take pleasure in informing you that diet and exercise are crucial for your mental health as well. Exercise can assist in addressing symptoms of SAD. Over 100 studies conclude that exercise is an effective way to decrease depressive symptoms. The release of endorphins while exercising is responsible for your enhanced mood. Endorphins are our happy hormones that reduce pain and increase feelings of happiness. Any type of exercise can increase the release of endorphins, but some of the best exercises for this include:
- Dance Fitness
- Jogging or Running
- Resistance Training
Thirty minutes a day can produce optimal results. If the thought of 30 minutes of exercise a day makes you cringe, don’t worry. Even 10 minutes of exercise a day can provide benefits for your mental health. Exercise can include a formal program with or without the help of a personal trainer. But it can also be as informal as turning on a Youtube video and following along. Whatever method you choose, what's most important is that you begin and remain consistent.
Ask Your Doctor About Light Therapy
Light Therapy or Phototherapy is the exposure to bright light in the morning and the avoidance of bright light at night. The source of bright light can be either outdoor sunlight or indoor lighting. This type of treatment is used to treat SAD and is both an effective and affordable option to address irregular circadian rhythms. Your circadian rhythm is the physical, mental, and behavioral changes that occur within a 24-hour timeframe. A proper circadian rhythm has been shown to increase serotonin, your happy hormone. Increased serotonin levels lead to improved mood and a decrease in depressive symptoms. Adequate sleep is crucial for the production of serotonin. The recommended length for artificial light is between 30 and 60 minutes, first thing in the morning. Your doctor can recommend a phototherapy regimen that is correct for you. It will include the length, time of the morning, and light intensity.
If you're attempting to take some steps on your own, get as much time outside in the morning as you can. Don't forget to turn the TV off and put the phone away at least an hour before bedtime in order to keep your circadian rhythm and serotonin levels in check.
You Are Not Alone
Many people assume that the fall and winter months have to bring seasonal depression along with it. If you find yourself feeling down for several weeks this season, speak with your doctor about additional treatment. Although SAD will subside on its own, four to five months is too long to suffer alone. If you would like to speak with someone about what you’re going through this season, there are free and confidential resources available to you that provide treatment, information, and referral services 24/7, 365-days a year.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).