What is Seasonal Depression and Do I Have It?

What is Seasonal Depression and Do I Have It?

As the seasons change throughout the year, do you find that your mood and energy level go haywire? If the question, “What is seasonal depression?” has ever crossed your mind, keep reading. You may be experiencing symptoms of seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Related to the changing seasons, this form of depression affects 11 million people in the United States.


Most people experience SAD at the beginning of fall and winter. However, some people also experience SAD during spring and winter.


Maybe you’ve heard of seasonal depression but still ask, “What is seasonal depression? How do I know if I have it?” Or you may have been told that the depression is “in your head” or that you just need a brighter outlook on life. Know that this isn’t true. SAD is a diagnosable illness that has very real physiological effects.


We’re here to break down SAD symptoms and help you find hope for healing as you navigate seasonal depression. 


Your Guide to Facing Seasonal Depression

What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Depression?


If you’ve experienced any of the following symptoms, especially during the colder seasons, you may suffer from seasonal depression. These symptoms often start out mild but worsen over time.


  •     Feelings of hopelessness, worthless, guilt
  •     The inability to concentrate
  •     Carbohydrate cravings
  •     Overeating
  •     Weight gain
  •     Sleeping too much
  •     Low energy 
  •     Thoughts about losing the will to live
  •     Daily feelings of sadness or feeling “down”
  •     No interest in usually enjoyable activities
  •     Increased fatigue
  •     Feeling hopeless or helpless
  •     Social withdrawal 


Those with specific fall and winter depression may experience oversleeping, weight gain, low energy, and appetite changes such as carb cravings.


While symptoms often subside in spring and summer, some people still experience seasonal depression during these seasons. It’s suspected that summer results in too much sunlight for some, resulting in these specific symptoms: insomnia, anxiety, weight loss, poor appetite, and heightened irritability. 


What are the Causes of Seasonal Depression?

Currently, there is no specific cause for SAD, but there are a few situations that highly correlate with the illness.


First, our natural circadian rhythms are affected due to a lack of sunlight. This affects how our bodies produce serotonin, our mood-stabilizing hormone. Less sunlight means less serotonin, and a disrupted circadian rhythm results in serotonin not functioning properly. Thus, we may experience a noticeable shift in our emotions. 


A disturbed circadian rhythm can also change our melatonin levels, disrupting the balance between melatonin and cortisol. Melatonin is a hormone that helps us relax and fall asleep while cortisol is our stress hormone. The two should be in balance, but it’s likely that the change in seasons throws off these hormones.


Finally, less sunlight results in lower levels of vitamin D, which is needed for a healthy immune system and happy mood. In fact, we get 50-90% of our vitamin D from sun exposure. Most of us are already deficient in vitamin D due to our indoor lifestyles, and with decreased sunlight, the drop in vitamin D corresponds with a drop in mood.


How Can You Treat Seasonal Depression with Functional Medicine?

Conventional doctors use light therapy and/or medication to help treat depression symptoms. In the colder, darker months of fall and winter, light therapy is especially effective. The goal is to compensate for less sunlight using fluorescent lights designed to mimic sunlight. Bright light therapy has a very high success rate among those who suffer from seasonal depression.


Functional medicine doctors also incorporate other natural methods into a SAD treatment plan, especially focusing on nutrition. 


For starters, it’s crucial to get adequate levels of vitamin D3. A functional medicine doctor may give you a list of foods high in vitamin D3 and/or supply you with vitamin D supplements. Spending more time outside in direct sunlight will increase vitamin D intake.


Nutrition plays a huge role in mental health as well as our physical wellbeing. Inflammation is a serious cause of depression, so it’s essential to eat foods to reduce inflammation. Focus on whole, unprocessed foods high in omega-3 fats such as fatty fish or flax seeds. Tryptophan, an amino acid that produces serotonin, is found in turkey, spinach, pumpkins, peas, nuts, chicken, and bananas.


In addition to mindful nutrition, chances are you’ll feel better if you stay active. Most of us want to relax on the couch during the winter months, but this can make us feel even more sluggish. Conduct a quick YouTube search for an at-home workout, go for a walk, or simply warm up and stretch your muscles. Your body will thank you.


While methods such as bright light therapy, vitamin D, nutrition, and exercise can relieve SAD symptoms, it’s important to specifically address mental health. Seasonal depression has both physical and mental symptoms, so don’t be afraid to reach out to a therapist for professional help. 


Treat Your Seasonal Depression This Winter

We’re currently in the thick of winter, and many of us are experiencing SAD symptoms. If you’ve been wondering, “what is seasonal depression?” we hope this article provided insight and helpful information.


If you’re looking for personal healthcare focused on your physical, mental, and social health, Five Journeys provides a variety of services and treatments. It’s not too late to get help this winter and manage your seasonal depression for years to come.