The Dread of Winter: Ups and Downs of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Updated: Feb 1, 2021
By Coach Kat, January 31, 2021, copyright Bronwyn Katdaré 2021
Dread: 1: to fear; 2: to feel extreme reluctance to meet or face
January is not an easy month for me. None of the winter months are. However, over the last several years (decades???), the sense of absolute dread starts creeping in during October. Yep, right before we get into “holiday season.”
If you knew me, you might think I dislike the holidays, but nothing is further from the truth. I LOVE holidays – playing dress-up, getting together with others, the “sparkle” of it all. But…I.Just.Can’t.
Around October, my energy and motivation begin to wane. By mid-January, I’m downright lethargic, physically and mentally. Now, this isn’t from the mass amounts of party invitations I get at this time of year! Haha.
At the ripe age of 21, stress, anxiety, and the cumulative effects of trauma hit its pinnacle and my body said, “No more.” I finally received a diagnosis of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, but with no doctor admitting that stress and all of those factors contributed to it. This was in November. By January, I lost my university scholarship and transferred colleges and changed majors.
I was a zombie. I was doing everything on auto-pilot – from exercise, to writing papers, to eating. I was living by joyless sense of rote. Nothing had changed, but everything was changing.
I only wanted to sleep but couldn’t fall asleep or stay asleep. I was still doing my exercises – but I literally gained 20 lbs in a weekend and then another 20 lbs on top of that over the next weeks. And. It. Would. Not. Come. Off!!!
A doctor in a magazine article mentioned Seasonal Affective Disorder. I asked my doctor. “No, that’s not a real thing” was the gist of what he said to me. He told me to eat better and get more exercise. Um…have you met me?! I'm an athlete!!!
I’m not one to sit on my duff, so I did my own research, which was quite limited at that time. What I learned was that I needed more sunlight. Well, I lived in the Western Pennsylvania Appalachian Mountain region so natural sunlight was not an option especially during the dead of winter. It got dark at 3:30 in the afternoon!
I started using a special light for SAD. I had a seizure from the light. I couldn’t use it anymore, not that it was working for me. I always got outside quite a bit during all seasons during all of my life. I even worked outside for 10 years. It didn’t matter. My body and mind were staging a revolt.
When spring came, I was so heavy that I could hardly run. I was also embarrassed by the weight I gained. I got up at 5:30 am so I could go to the high school track to run before the students ever got to school. I was dragging ass and depressed. Yet, the weight wouldn’t budge.
But then, something miraculous happened in September! The weight effortlessly fell off. Nothing had changed in the way I was eating or exercising. My schedule was the same. The difference was the amount of sunlight I took in over the summer.
But…winter follows autumn and during the next January, I gained back the weight (and the depression) just as quickly as the first time. Again, it didn’t come off until September. This cycle has gone on for DECADES!!! Imagine the stress put on the body and the systemic inflammation harbored from such a cycle.
In 2017, I expected the weight to fall off, as it does. But it didn’t. It wouldn’t! This lasted for 3 years. I consulted a doctor and a functional medicine practitioner. My stress, anxiety, and depression were maxed. No one was worried about it because of my lifestyle. Three years of having the weight not falling off during autumn led to a heart attack. Why? Systemic inflammation.
Strangely, after that heart attack, the weight came off. I felt FANTASTIC! But, here it is, one year post-attack and the weight is starting to creep up one pound by one pound. The old “lack of motivation” and brain fog are increasing. My sleeping is sporadic and I’m tired but not tired. Those of you who experience that understand what I’m talking about.
I expected this winter to be different. I expected the inflammation to stay away. I expected my mood to be stable - no more depression. And now I’m worried. Stress in all its forms is compounding.
I still live where there are fewer than 49 days of sunshine per year. (But that's another basket of apples...!).
That’s my SAD story.
So, where do we go from here? Let’s now learn about SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons. SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. In most cases, Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms appear during late fall or early winter and go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. Less commonly, people with the opposite pattern have symptoms that begin in spring or summer. In either case, symptoms start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses.
Symptoms of SAD may include:
· Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
· Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
· Having low energy
· Having problems with sleeping
· Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
· Feeling sluggish or agitated
· Having difficulty concentrating
· Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
· Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression, may include:
· Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
· Weight gain
· Tiredness or low energy
Symptoms specific to summer-onset seasonal affective disorder, sometimes called summer depression, may include:
· Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
· Poor appetite
· Weight loss
· Agitation or anxiety
The specific cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder remains undetermined. Some factors that may come into play include:
· Circadian rhythm: The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD by disrupting the body's internal clock, leading to depression.
· Serotonin levels: A drop in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight causes a drop in serotonin that triggers depression.
· Melatonin levels: The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body's level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is diagnosed more often in women than in men. SAD occurs more frequently in younger adults than in older adults. Factors that may increase your risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder include: family history of SAD or depression; having major depression or bipolar disorder; living far from the equator due to decreased sunlight during the winter and longer days during the summer months.
Don't brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the "winter blues" or a seasonal funk that you have to tough out on your own. Take signs and symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder seriously. As with other types of depression, SAD can get worse if it's not treated.
Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder may include light therapy (called phototherapy or light box therapy), medications or supplements, and psychotherapy.
What works for me may not work for you. Experiment with different or multiple treatment types and give them the season to work. I participate in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and journal daily both before and after meditation. I also stick with my exercise routine, choosing outdoor exercise as much as possible to get exposure to natural sunlight. My work station in the home office is next to a large window where I open the blinds to allow in the sunlight (even if it doesn't look sunny where I live!). My dog provides an excellent reason for me to get outside and even play in the snow!
My diet is clean and I eschew processed foods, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. During the winter, I eat hearty stews along with lighter fare like salad and fruit. With the days being shorter, I find I want to fall asleep earlier, so I go to bed earlier. My natural alarm clock awakens me when there is daylight.
This is not a perfect treatment plan - believe me, I'd rather be running on a sandy beach than bundled up to go outside in the snow - but it helps me mentally. I do know that the season will change and the sunshine will return. There's always hope for better days.
(Bronwyn Katdaré is a certified Nutrition, Lifestyle, and Functional Medicine Health Coach who focuses on the prevention and reversal of chronic disease through the integrated lens of whole-food plant-based nutrition, physical activity, proper sleep, stress management, a sense of community, and the feeling of joy. She specializes in chronic conditions created by inflammation, sugar cravings, toxins, and alternative healing practices designed to compassionately balance the entire being).