How Winter Affects Your Mental Health

Dec. 4, 2014

December is here and that means winter and all that comes with it is here including a negative effect on your health. Winter is known to bring out a number of health problems, including colds, dry skin and eyes, lack of exercise and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

what to do about seasonal affective disorder

What is SAD?

SAD is a type of depression that’s related to changes in the seasons, with symptoms beginning and ending at about the same time of each year (November to March) which, for many of us are typically the winter months or the winter season. It affects over 500,000 people in the U.S. and symptoms of SAD can mimic those of clinical depression. Anxiety, sadness, irritability, social withdrawal, fatigue and lack of concentration are all common SAD symptoms.

The exact cause of SAD isn’t known but some scientists think that certain hormones trigger mood-related changes at certain times of the year especially during the winter because there is less sunlight. Reduced exposure to sunlight can cause imbalances of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, which affect your mood.

The Link between Serotonin and SAD

During a recent study at the University of Copenhagen, scientists found that SAD may be caused by the serotonin transporter, or SERT, protein. Serotonin is a brain chemical responsible for maintaining mood balance. Scientists found that in winter, participants with SAD had 5% more SERT than in the summer, meaning more serotonin was being removed from their brains in winter, which can cause depression symptoms.

During the winter, it’s important to take extra care of yourself to avoid the chance of developing SAD. Maintaining a healthy daily routine of some specific habits is helpful at combating SAD. Here are some things you can do to help keep SAD away:

  • Get sunlight whenever possible. Stepping outside or letting in sunlight through the window will increase your body’s serotonin levels, which balances your mood. Sunlight will also help brighten up the room, helping keep you more awake. This can be thought of as light therapy, and while some artificial sources, such as a light box, can help, sunlight is the brightest and most comprehensive when it comes to light sources, in other words, even with cloud cover, it is the best form of light.
  • Don’t cut exercise out of your daily routine. Colder weather forces many people inside and can lead to excuses for not exercising. By exercising a few times a week, you’ll help release endorphins, a hormone that gives you a natural high that in turn keeps you in a happier mood and energetic. While lack of exercise might not be the root cause of SAD, it is certainly a contributor that compounds the effects of depression. Exercise is generally thought to be one of the main ways to treat depression disorders as a whole.
  • Get plenty of rest. Sleeping seven to eight hours a night is needed to keep your mind and body regular. The best form of sleep is consistent sleep which means figuring out your circadian rhythm, your body and brains way of knowing when its time to sleep an when its time to wake. bedtime and wake times are best if they are the same each day and night. Sleep is the best way to repair and reset the mind, it is also the best treatment for any form of depression. Learn more about better sleep hygiene here.
  • See a doctor if needed. If you experience changes in your mood, appetite, sleep habit or energy levels, visit a doctor to determine if you have SAD or if something else is going on. Don't go it alone. Speaking with a physician can help you identify what might be causing your specific symptoms.

At the UC Health, we can offer hope with thorough diagnostic evaluations and individualized treatment plans for conditions such as SAD. We welcome anyone who is dealing with these symptoms for treatment through our psychiatry and behavioral health treatment programs. To schedule an appointment, please call (513) 475-UC4U.

To learn more about symptoms and treatments for SAD and to take our quiz on SAD, click here.