Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) plagues approximately 10 million Americans, with an estimated additional ten to twenty percent more Americans who suffer from mild symptoms of SAD. Often mixed up with the 'Winter Blues,' for those who suffer, it means a lot more dysfunction than is typically thought from just 'being down,' in the winter.
The average age for Seasonal Affective Disorder sets in is between 18-and 30-years-old, and women are four times more likely to have SAD than men. Coincidentally, this is a large motherhood demographic, and many women often find themselves feeling, 'blah,' during the cold, winter months. I'm one of them, and though my symptoms qualify me as a 'subsyndromal SAD' sufferer (not meeting diagnostic criteria for a mood disorder according to DSM V, but enough of a sufferer of similar symptoms to treat as if I met the criteria), I know it's more than just feeling 'blah.'
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Six percent of those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder actually require hospitalization because the depression they suffer is so dysfunctional. A diagnosis of SAD requires depressive moods/symptoms during the winter that are not related to other stressors, like trauma, bereavement, seasonal stress, etc., that have happened at least twice over a two-year time period, and typically in the winter (though Summer SAD does exist).
Additionally, the feelings of despair, fatigue, irritability, weight gain, insomnia, lack of motivation, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating and/or even self-harm ideation are not present at other times of the year.
According to the Mayo Clinic, it is unknown as to why specifically Seasonal Affective Disorder happens. Researchers believe that there is some correlation between the loss of sunlight during this time of year and your body's circadian rhythm - the lack of sunlight messes up your internal clock and makes you feel more depressed. It is also suggested that reduced sunlight can affect your serotonin levels, and that drop can trigger depressive symptoms. As well, your body may change its production of melatonin and that also affects sleep patterns and mood.
So what can you do if you feel like winter makes you a different person? An unhappier, more irritable and lesser version of yourself? Most importantly, recognize that Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real condition, and even if you suffer mild symptoms, or subsyndromal SAD, you're not just making things up and it's not just in your head. Talk with your doctor about making sure your serotonin, melatonin and Vitamin D levels are balanced, and work to make sure they are.
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Do your best to get regular sleep, and to try and keep your sleep cycles on target. Exercise can help with that, as can natural supplements (go omega-3s!). Vitamin D levels not only directly affect your mood, but research shows they affect your overall health and immune system.
Since SAD is so strongly correlated with light reduction, look into light therapy. According to Harvard University, light therapy can be effective when treating SAD, but you must be sure to be safe. No light therapy box is an approved method for treating SAD, though they've been found to be effective, and for those with pre-existing conditions that affect eyes or other disorders, you need to be sure your doctor is on board with the safety of the light box/lamp you choose.
That said, I use one, and I find it makes all the difference in my day-to-day dealings with winter.
Do you suffer from SAD symptoms? What helps you?