How seasonal changes can impact mental and physical health
What is seasonal depression?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or seasonal depression, is a type of depression with a recurrent seasonal pattern. Symptoms begin in the fall and typically end in the spring. Seasonal depression is more common among people living higher latitudes that have fewer hours of daylight in the winter months.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), symptoms of depression may include:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
- Having problems with sleep
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having low energy
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
Seasonal depression and other health conditions
According to the NIH, seasonal depression is more common in people with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder, especially bipolar 2. In addition, people with seasonal depression are more likely to have ADHD, or an eating, panic, or anxiety disorder. Symptoms of these conditions can all worsen in the winter months:
“My anxiety flares up often for no reason and can last for a day or two. Then into remission and then back again. The fall and winter are the worst times of the year.” Go to post
People with other health conditions may be more prone to seasonal depression as well, such as those living with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD):
“I believe that I read somewhere that the incidence of seasonal affective disorder…is higher in the PMDD population. It’s definitely true for me. I live in an extremely northern state and our winters are really short on sunshine. It’s much harder to get through the literal gray days than it is to get by in the sunshiny days of summer when my PMDD is weighing heavy on me.” Go to post
“I have PMDD and it’s worsened this year since moving to Portland, OR, and battling seasonal depression. I noticed a lot of my PMDD symptoms cleared up during the summer when the sun was out and I was more active.” Go to post
Seasonal variations in other health conditions
Discussions across Inspire health communities reveal that seasonal variations may impact other health conditions, as well. In some cases, these symptoms may contribute to seasonal depression. Or, seasonal symptoms may exist independently from changes in mood.
In some cases, a person’s condition may feel worse or more pronounced in the winter months:
“I have fibromyalgia, joint pain and muscle pain from Graves’ disease. I also had my thyroid removed in 2014. I have more pain in the winter as well as rainy days. I was in a chronic disease group and the winter affected the rheumatoid arthritis group as well.” Go to post
“My son is 12 and his psoriasis has gotten worse each year. I do want to share…every summer his skin heals and is normal. We spend as much time as we can at the beach. The combination of the sun and swimming in the ocean heals him. For him it is not the sun alone. It has to be in combination with the ocean water. Luckily, he loves the water! Come winter, he starts having a problem again…we comfort ourselves knowing summertime will clear it up.” Go to post
Seasonal drops in Vitamin D levels may be a reason why symptoms worsen:
“My [Vitamin] D was low too. I took 50,000 units daily for a week, then weekly for six more weeks and now I take 3,000 units daily for maintenance. It made a big difference with muscle myalgia for me.” Go to post
Some people living with chronic conditions find that winter climates make it harder for them to perform tasks that normally help them manage their health, such as getting regular sunlight and exercise:
“I do feel that I suffer with seasonal depression. The cold and the dreary, short days are pretty hard to take, and walking outdoors really only appeals on warmer, cheerier days. Add in the post-holiday letdown & the return to social isolation, and things can look even worse. Also, for me, I found myself dealing with pain from worsening arthritis.” Go to post
If you suffer from seasonal variations in your mood or health condition, the best thing you can do is talk to your doctor about your symptoms and possible treatments.
Treatments for seasonal depression include:
- Light therapy—Sitting in front of a very bright light box (10,000 lux) every day for 30 to 45 minutes has been shown to improve symptoms of seasonal depression.
- Psychotherapy—Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to be as effective as light therapy in improving SAD symptoms.
- Antidepressant medications—Because depression is related to serotonin activity, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are used to treat seasonal depression.
- Vitamin D—Taking Vitamin D supplements may help improve symptoms associated with seasonal depression.
To connect with other people who are managing seasonal depression or other mental health conditions, join the Inspire Mental Health America Community.
Member comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity. This content is for general informational purposes only and does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of any organization or individual. The content should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please consult your healthcare provider about any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
“Keep your face always toward the sunshine, and shadows will fall behind you.”
– Walt Whitman