Content derived from interview with Rachel Kopicki, MD, Family Medicine
The Puget Sound and surrounding areas are known to be some of the cloudiest regions of the United States. Winters here boast rainfall an average of 18 days in a month, and during short winter days we may only see two hours of sunshine per day. All things considered, feeling down due to the dreary weather seems fair! But, how do you know if what you’re experiencing is normal, if it’s depression, or if it’s the result of seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder is a mood disorder that presents itself seasonally and is commonly characterized by symptoms similar to those associated with depression. Symptoms may include any of the following:
- Sleeping more or displaying increased drowsiness during the day
- Having a loss of interest in preferred activities or experiencing social withdrawal
- Having feelings of guilt and hopelessness
- Having more difficulty focusing and thinking clearly
- Displaying increased appetite or weight gain
- Experiencing physical problems such as headaches
For medical professionals to make an accurate diagnosis of SAD, symptoms must be displayed seasonally for at least two consecutive years, as symptoms may be similar to those of depression. SAD will typically occur at the same time every year for most people who experience it, but then show improvements during other seasons. Individuals living in northern regions of the world are more likely to display symptoms consistent with SAD and are also more likely to be female and between the ages of 18 and 30 years old. In the general population, only 0.5 to 3 percent of people may be diagnosed with SAD, making it fairly uncommon. However, some providers, such as VMC family medicine physician, Dr. Rachel Kopicki, report that they see it more often, attributing this difference to the dreary, rainy weather we see in the Pacific Northwest.
How is SAD treated?
The good news is that the approaches for treatment for both SAD and depression are similar in some ways. Lifestyle modifications can help tremendously with both SAD and depression whether it’s counseling, practicing mindfulness exercises, meditation, and eating well. There are some things that you can do at home to help support your mood, especially if you think you might be experiencing the effects of SAD. These can include:
- Informing your doctor if you notice a persistent low mood or changes in your mood.
- Increasing your exercise. Aim for about 150 minutes per week. Having dedicated exercise on a regular basis, regardless of the amount of time does support mental health. Start small, maybe with a short walk, YouTube exercise videos, dancing, or anything that gets your body moving and the blood pumping.
- Increasing exposure to natural light. Note, this doesn’t have to be direct sunlight, just natural light. Consider going outside for at least 10-15 minutes during daylight hours or sitting near a window.
- Participating in hobbies.
- Making socialization a priority (while honoring social distancing). This can help with feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Vitamin D is often thought of as the sunshine supplement, but is taking a vitamin D supplement enough to avoid the effects of seasonal affective disorder? We get vitamin D from both sunlight and foods, but sunlight provides a more absorbable form of vitamin D. With fewer opportunities to be in the sunlight during winter here in the Pacific Northwest, vitamin D deficiencies may be more prevalent here. Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency can also be similar to symptoms of SAD, including fatigue or feeling down.
Dr. Kopicki reports that she is frequently asked about the use of vitamin D with SAD. Instances of people experiencing both low vitamin D levels and SAD can be found, but they do not always occur together. Since both vitamin D deficiency and SAD symptoms can coexist, you may be recommended a vitamin D supplement by your doctor. With such little sunlight during the winter, many people living in northern regions of the world can benefit from supplemental Vitamin D, but it isn’t a guaranteed cure for SAD.
Dr. Kopicki states that each person’s definition of the blues is different. What feels normal for one person may be not normal for another and encourages anyone struggling with notable mood changes to reach out to their doctor. There may be some simple changes or supportive techniques that can be implemented without medicine or without intensive treatments, that can help get you through the winter as we eagerly await the sun’s return.