Dealing with Depression – Do You Have the Winter Blues (S.A.D.)?

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Image Credit Creative Commons, 
Kristina Alexanderson

When family and friends come together, we try to put on our best face at the gathering, despite any negative feelings we may be experiencing.

With winter holidays, conditions like depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) often get tucked under the rug.

What is SAD, and Do You Have It?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is usually experienced by adults in the winter, ultimately resulting in depression. Studies found 80% of SAD sufferers to be women, age 23 is the average age of noticeable symptoms, and distance from the equator is associated with higher likelihood of experiencing SAD.

Symptoms of SAD during fall and winter include:

  • Irritability
  • Tiredness or low energy
  • Problems getting along with other people
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection
  • Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain

What’s the difference between SAD and depression?

According to the DSM-5, SAD is not considered a discrete mental health condition from depression, but rather denotes a patterned onset of symptoms.

American Psychological Association describes SAD as a:

“…regular seasonal pattern of major depressive episodes during the fall and winter months with periods of full improvement in the spring and summer. The symptoms of SAD are exactly the same as non-seasonal depression symptoms…. The only difference with SAD is the seasonal pattern it follows.”

One Cause of SAD: Vitamin D

Although depression can be an intractable condition and experienced all-year-round, Vitamin D could be a simple solution for preventing temporary bouts of depression-like symptoms from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

How so? Vitamin D is an essential vitamin synthesized in the body as a result of the sunlight  exposure on the skin. As sunlight is less readily available in winter, our bodies produce lower quantities of vitamin D.

At the very least, vitamin D testing can rule out this easily preventable deficiency as a potential cause for SAD symptoms.

Other Potential Culprits of SAD

Melatonin. Some experts believe that a lack of sunlight increases the body’s production of melatonin, which is naturally secreted in the brain in the absence of light, and helps promote sleep at night, but too much melatonin can cause symptoms of depression.

Serotonin. According to lead researcher at University of Copenhagen, Dr. Brenda McMahon, decreased serotonin activity in the brain may be a cause of SAD.

More specifically, “the serotonin transporter (SERT) carries serotonin back into the nerve cells where it is not active – so the higher the SERT activity, the lower the activity of serotonin.”

Additionally, “sunlight keeps this setting naturally low, but when the nights grow longer during the autumn, the SERT levels increase, resulting in diminishing active serotonin levels.”

However, studies also suggest some individuals may not be affected by SAD due to differences in brain activity and response to changes in daylight patterns. “[W]e have found that [people unaffected by SAD] don’t have this increase in SERT activity, so their active serotonin levels remain high throughout the winter.”

Possible Suggestions for Managing SAD

  1. Light therapy. The ultraviolet light in special lamps promotes synthesis of vitamin D in skin cells.
  2. Vitamin D supplements. Usually in pill or liquid drop form, vitamin D supplementation has been as effective or even more effective than light therapy in alleviating symptoms of depression. Dosage recommendations vary anywhere from 500 IU to 50,000 IU (international units), depending on the source. For example, the Vitamin D Council recommends 10,000-50,000 IU, while the Endocrine Society recommends 1500-2000 IU with an upper limit of 10,000 IU. However, the general consensus is that deficiency is more likely than vitamin D overdosing, especially when vitamin D levels can be tested with a standard blood draw, so it may be better to take more than take too little.
  3. Melatonin supplements. Although SAD is theorized to be caused by excess melatonin levels, some individuals may find the opposite problem: too little melatonin, usually manifesting as trouble falling asleep, and caused by night-time exposure to blue light from smartphones and modern lighting. 1-3mg of melatonin has been found to alleviate insomnia.

How WellnessFX Can Help

Why Vitamin D is Important

Beyond mood regulation, Vitamin D serves many important functions in the body, including:

  • Supporting your immune system.
  • Reducing inflammation, which helps the body heal faster, protect the immune system, and avoid conditions like hay fever, periodontitis, atherosclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Absorbing calcium. Calcium needs to be aptly absorbed from food through the gut, so as to maintain bone growth and strength, and avoiding osteoporosis.

That is all to say…

Get your vitamin D tested!

Some ideas for ways to test for the most insight for the buck:

  • Test once for each season: winter, spring, summer, autumn. Compare results.
  • Test before and after vitamin D supplementation (e.g. a trial of 3 months of 10,000 IU per day), and keep track of how you feel in a journal or, if you’re lazy like us, emailing updates to yourself using a smartphone.
  • Test in the summer, before and after your highest sunlight days of the year. This way, you can answer questions like: What is your baseline level of vitamin D? Are you getting enough sun exposure during the summer to meet your vitamin D needs, or is supplementation still required? Do your numbers change significantly depending on the season, or do you need supplementation all year round?

WellnessFX offers vitamin D (listed as 25-Hydroxy vitamin D) testing in the Baseline, Performance, and Premium packages.

Browse All Packages Now

The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.