Seasonal Depression Awareness Month has begun, and in light of the colder, grayer weather, it is an important topic to discuss. According to Johns Hopkins, seasonal depression, or “seasonal affective disorder,” affects approximately 10-20% of the entire population this time of year. Lightbeam’s Clinical Transformation Advisor, Jessica Scruton, will join me again on the Population Health Podcast for our second care transformation-focused episode next week, but we wanted to begin the discussion today on the blog to ensure that everyone has the information they need to maintain strong mental health this winter.
The Science Behind Seasonal Depression
The Mayo Clinic attributes three main causes to the development of seasonal depression: the circadian rhythm is disrupted, which oftentimes occurs with decreased sunlight in the winter months, a decrease in serotonin, the neurotransmitter that affects emotions and moods, or the common culprit: an imbalanced level of melatonin.
The outside is often darker, colder, and the days are shorter in the winter. Less exposure to sunlight has a major effect on people cognitively, as these conditions cause the brain to produce an excess of melatonin. Melatonin is the natural sleep hormone we create that influences our moods and energy levels. Around 9 at night, it is released from the pineal gland in our brains into our bloodstream, which creates the groggy, sleepy feeling around the time a person generally goes to bed. Melatonin is mainly triggered by light, which is why people who struggle to fall asleep are encouraged to maintain darker environments in the evenings, limit their blue light exposure, maintain a routine sleep schedule, and sometimes take an artificial melatonin supplement. When there is less light to wake up to in the winter, melatonin does not stop production as quickly, which leads to overproduction and the familiar feeling of fatigue throughout the day.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are much like those of major depression, except they begin to fade when things warm up. If they do not, individuals should seek the proper channels of help. Anyone who has a history of major depression should take seasonal affective disorder seriously. Symptoms of the disorder can involve:
- An uncharacteristic change in moods
- A loss of interest
- Changes in eating habits (many people with seasonal affective disorder experience weight gain)
- A struggle to concentrate
- Questioning one’s self-worth
Combatting Seasonal Depression
To combat seasonal depression, it is critical to pay attention to our bodies. It can be difficult, as there is an emphasis on rich food during the holiday season. Individuals should keep an eye on carbohydrate and sugar consumption; both they and alcohol especially should be enjoyed in moderation. It is important to try to fit at least 30 minutes of activity in per day. In areas with milder winters, Jessica recommends bundling up and going for a short walk if there is not any wind. Small amounts of time outdoors offer both fresh air and sunlight exposure.
Oftentimes a prescribed treatment for seasonal depression is the use of light therapy boxes, but there are criteria to follow. According to the Mayo Clinic, to get the best results from light therapy, the time of day, the duration, and the intensity should be taken into account. The light therapy box should be 10,000 lux to treat seasonal depression, and it should be between 16 to 24 inches from an individual’s face for safety reasons. With a box at this strength, 20 to 30 minutes first thing in the morning is a typical session. But, both the box and amount of time is at the doctor’s discretion; a patient may begin with shorter sessions that increase as time goes on or begin at a different time of day. In the end, a person battling seasonal affective disorder should consult with a doctor before and throughout treatment. A physician may also suggest medication or psychotherapy depending on the individual.
Laurel Derr is the Marketing & Event Coordinator at Lightbeam.