Wellness·The Goods

Not just the January blues: Signs, symptoms and how to combat seasonal affective disorder

Dr. Fariha Khan clears up some myths about SAD

Dr. Fariha Khan clears up some myths about SAD

(Photography by Paul Green, Via: Unsplash)

All the snow, cold and long nights of late have many of us feeling like we don't want to leave our homes. Although we may be yearning for those sunnier months and feeling a little bit blah, a marked difference in mood and outlook could be something more than the winter blues. Often emerging during winter months, seasonal affective disorder is a disorder that falls within the broader category of depression, but with a specific seasonal component. According to a study from the University of Toronto, seasonal affective disorder affects three to five percent of Canadians. So Dr. Fariha Khan stopped by The Goods to discuss the signs and symptoms of SAD and what you can do to combat them.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Symptoms of depression include feeling down, in a depressed mood with no clear cause, as well as a lack of interest and motivation to do the typical activities that are normally enjoyed. Depression can also bring about impairments in memory, focus, concentration, increased irritability and agitation and even physical symptoms like changes in weight and sleep patterns. Doctors find that some individuals' symptoms emerge during certain months or seasons of the year. To diagnose, most doctors look for a pattern over a few years in order to determine that the changes are not caused by other outside factors that could affect one's mood and outlook.

SAD is often genetic

If you have family members who've been diagnosed with SAD or other mood and mental health disorders, you may be at an increased risk of having it as well. So talk to your doctor about your family's history – it might provide your care provider with the clues they need to diagnose your issue.

People aged 18-30 are more affected by SAD than any other age group

This is an age range that includes stressed out students and people who are new to the workforce trying to pay off their student loans. These timely stressors might be the reason why this group can be so negatively affected by SAD.

Women are more affected by SAD than men

While SAD can affect people of all genders, ages, and backgrounds, studies show that women are more likely to be affected by the condition. The reason for this is hard to determine, but hormones could be a factor, or gender-specific stresses could also be at play. As with many mental health disorders and mood disorders, researchers do find that women are more at risk than men, and SAD is no exception.

SAD can affect people living anywhere, not only in colder countries

Generally speaking, researchers do find that people that live in far northern and southern climates (as in, very far from the equator) are more affected by SAD, while people that live closer to the equator seem to be less prone. However, there are some cases where people have this disorder despite living in sunny climates. The cause of SAD in these places is most likely due to genetics and changes in a person's circadian rhythms.

Severe symptoms require medical interventions to treat effectively and you should talk to a doctor if you feel that your mood is debilitating. But, if you're feeling like your symptoms are not severe, there are some simple things you can do at home that can make a difference. Dr. Khan shared some things that you can work into your winter if you're feeling like you need a little help to get through the day.

Here are two options. One is better at boosting your mood than the other.

Egg and cheese breakfast sandwich or chicken salad?

Chicken salad is a healthy option, but the egg and the cheese in the sandwich both have vitamin D and B12, vitamins that research suggests contribute to our serotonin levels. Furthermore, picking good carbohydrates will help to set you up for success. Carbs from healthy grains, nuts and seeds take longer to digest than comfort-food carbs that can spike your blood sugar and and will leave you feeling satisfied for longer.

Omega-3 vitamin or ounce of beef?

Both are good options, but the Omega-3 vitamin is best because it's hard to get enough of it in your regular diet. Check with your doctor to see if this supplement is a good option for you.

A good night's sleep or a glass of milk?

In this case, your doctor would probably rather recommend the milk. Part of the issue with SAD is that people have a tendency to oversleep, so getting more sleep isn't likely to help, especially if you already wake up feeling unrested and groggy. Getting the vitamin D in the milk could help you out more than a quick nap.

15 minute outdoor walk or 15 minutes of exercise?

If the choice is between indoor versus outdoor, a walk outside will be more beneficial. Try going in the morning to get those precious extra bits of sunlight.

Watching a comedy movie or a horror movie?

A comedy movie is better! Laughter can increase endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin and other "happy" chemicals, whereas the horror movie could increase your cortisol levels, a stress hormone that inhibits the happy hormones. But the bigger picture is the idea of doing something social. Research shows that socialization and social supports helps to combat SAD. So both types of films can be of help if you make it a movie night with friends – but if you get to pick the film, a comedy may be best.

A massage or a stretching routine?

Both are good, but the massage is the way to go in order to help fight SAD. Being touched and manipulating pressure points can stimulate the production of endorphins and oxytocin, boosting your mood.

Breathing exercises or aromatherapy?

Both have their positives, but deep breathing is best for people who have anxiety as a symptom of SAD. We tend to forget about the anxiety component of this condition, and deep breathing is best for helping to alleviate some of the symptoms.