Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the nervous system that can affect mood, sleep, memory, appetite, metabolism, and more. Other neurotransmitters you may have heard of are dopamine, noradrenaline, and histamine. Serotonin gets a lot of attention because “it helps regulate your mood.” It’s “often called the body’s natural ‘feel-good’ chemical.”
Serotonin, Melatonin, and SAD
When serotonin levels in your body increase, you feel happiness and energy. When the level of this neurotransmitter is balanced, it’s like an instant battery charger, giving us the power to be more active. As a result, during the spring and summer months, we spend more time outdoors and less time indoors glued in front of a TV screen. When we're exposed to shorter days with less light during the winter months, the brain has a lower level of serotonin, which can cause winter blues.
In contrast to serotonin is melatonin, known as the hormone of the darkness due to its response to darkness. This can make you feel tired and sleepy, especially during the cold season, which can also cause winter depression. Mayo Clinic Health System has stated, “Melatonin, produced in the pineal gland of the brain and triggered by darkness, influences the sleep/wake cycle. In the cold winter months when we are more likely to stay indoors and daylight hours are shorter, increased melatonin production in those susceptible can increase the occurrence of SAD.”
Increased melatonin production during the winter months can contribute to seasonal affective disorder.
SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, affects people mostly during the winter months, especially during the holiday seasons of Thanksgiving and Christmas. To learn more about SAD, I recently interviewed a south Texas counselor and psychotherapist, Dennis Ramos, M.A., L.P.C., about this type of depression that comes and goes with the winter season.
Q: What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Ramos: I have had many patients who experience and struggle with this problem. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression related to seasonal changes, often beginning, and ending around the same time of year, typically starting in winter and getting better in spring or summer.
Q: What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Ramos: Research has suggested the cause could be related to changes in exposure to sunlight and reductions in physical activity. The times can vary for different individuals. Although less common, some people experience SAD during spring and summer. Some of my patients have suffered from this problem for years, confused about why it comes and goes, before realizing it is related to seasonal changes.
SAD could be caused by changes in exposure to sunlight and reductions in physical activity.
Q: What are the symptoms?
Ramos: Like any other depression, a lack of energy and motivation is common. This can develop into a loss of interest, withdrawal from social activities, sleep problems, appetite disruption, and problems with focus and concentration. Sometimes depression can progress to loss of libido, agitation, feeling hopeless and worthless, and possibly thoughts of suicide. Relationships can also be affected negatively.
Q: Is SAD preventable?
Ramos: Well, there are things we can do to lessen the severity and hopefully prevent SAD, but some people still have some symptoms regardless. I have found that physical activity is a big help. Walking, working out, yoga, swimming, and dancing are some excellent examples. Creative activities can be helpful as well, things like playing music, artwork, crafts, woodworking, and writing. Exposure to sunlight can also be very beneficial, being outdoors, or if the weather is bad, try sitting next to a window.
Full-spectrum lighting is something to consider also. You can purchase a lamp or light fixture with full-spectrum bulbs, similar to sunlight, then expose your face and skin to the light for a few hours each day.
Vitamin D3, fish oil, B-complex vitamins, and probiotics can alleviate SAD symptoms.
I have read that taking some nutritional supplements can help with symptoms of SAD. These include vitamin D3, fish oil, B-complex vitamins, and probiotics. Many of my patients have had their depressive symptoms improve using these. Most people who use these strategies can relieve some or most of their symptoms.
Q: When is it time to call the doctor?
Ramos: If you think you may need help with symptoms of SAD, you can speak to a therapist, counselor, or doctor. A counselor or therapist can help you understand and identify the problem and develop a plan to cope with it. Like most who suffer from depression, there are some signs that it is time to visit a medical doctor for possible prescription medications.
Are you sad or angry much of the time? Are you withdrawing from your friends, family, and loved ones? If your daily functioning is seriously affected by your symptoms, if your sleep or appetite is seriously disrupted for a significant period, if it causes substantial problems with your job or relationships, it is a good time to ask for help from a professional. Suicidal thoughts, even if they are infrequent, signal that it is time to get some help.
A big thank you to counselor Dennis Ramos for taking the time to build more understanding about Seasonal Affective Disorder!
Closing Thoughts: You Are Not Alone
Now that the days are shorter, you may have noticed symptoms of SAD. If so, the first step is to consult your doctor. Be specific with your symptoms to ensure a proper diagnosis and treatment. Other medical conditions can cause depression. Sometimes, a physician can mistake your symptoms of SAD for other illnesses such as hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid condition notorious for causing fatigue, low energy, and depression.
If you’re suffering from SAD or have suffered in the past, and want to avoid a potential relapse, it is essential to pay attention to any changes occurring in your body. Write down your symptoms, concerns, struggles, and questions for your doctor. Journaling about your depression can also help improve and control your symptoms.
Talk to a mental health professional for a treatment option that is right for you. If this is causing you to have suicidal thoughts, go to the nearest emergency room. Alternatively, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-237-8255.
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