On occasion, I write about mental health, a subject that is near and dear to my heart.
Gorilla on Your Back, a blog post I wrote about what it feels like to have depression, was picked up by the Huffington Post, and I also also gave a TED Talk-like presentation on the subject at my synagogue that you can view here.
We’re almost a month into winter, a time when many people suffer from the “Winter Blues”, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression that often requires treatment.
I’m not a doctor, but that doesn’t mean I can’t educate about this condition. In today’s blog, I look at why the winter blues may be more serious than the name suggests.
What is SAD?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, approximately 5% of all Americans experience symptoms of SAD, which is caused by a reduced level of sunlight, something we’re not strangers to in these parts.
When this happens, it causes confusion for our internal clocks that help manage our waking and sleeping hours. Less sunlight reduces serotonin levels, the chemical that impacts our mood. When we don’t have enough serotonin, it can result in symptoms that make us feel sad, listless, tired, and disinterested in the things that usually bring us joy.
What’s Sunlight Got To Do with It?
Why does less sunlight get us down?
Sunlight affects your circadian rhythms which work like an alarm clock for the body. This is why they’re also known as the internal clock. Less sunlight impacts how our bodies manage the hormones and neurotransmitters responsible for mood regulation. Our bodies use the morning light to trigger wakefulness, and (to get super sciency) we actually have something called retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) in our eyes that detect sunlight and trigger our circadian rhythm into wakefulness. We wake up because the RGC reaction stops our production of restful melatonin.
The shorter days of winter interrupt all these cues, causing our bodies to overproduce melatonin, so we think it’s night all the time.
Why is Serotonin Important?
Serotonin and melatonin are opposites when it comes to SAD.
Serotonin helps keep our moods level and our energy levels up. When we don’t have enough sunlight and our serotonin levels are lower, it allows mood-enhancing neurotransmitters to have free reign, which in some of us increases the symptoms of depression.
Can Seasonal Depression Be Treated?
You bet it can.
Since the lack of natural sunlight is a leading cause of SAD, getting more UV light can ease symptoms. Light therapy or phototherapy mimics daylight, so your internal clock can recalibrate itself. The therapy is applied using a lightbox and requires about 30 minutes of exposure each day. It is a passive light source like any other light you use, with the key difference being it produces UV light.
However, severe symptoms should always be reported to your doctor as soon as possible to diagnose your issue and ensure you receive proper treatment.
SAD is only one of several mental health conditions, and often symptoms overlap among them. There are so many resources available to educate you on mental illness and point you in the right direction for treatment. Let’s start here:
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- The Peyton Heart Project
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