A sliver of grey sky peaks through your bedroom window: the sign of another cold winter’s day. It’s been months since the clocks rolled back, yet finding the energy to get up remains a challenge. If the dark days of winter leave you feeling sluggish and unmotivated, does it mean you have the winter blues or seasonal affective disorder? Are they the same thing?

Find out the difference between the two and what can be done about them.

What is SAD?

SAD, short for seasonal affective disorder, is a type of depression that usually begins in the fall, lasts through the winter and typically goes away in the spring. However, it can occur in the summer months as well.

SAD is a clinical condition that affects 2.9 percent of the population. It interferes with your daily life, can return year after year and may require medication or cognitive behavioural therapy. 

What causes SAD isn’t fully understood. Less exposure to sunlight, shorter days and longer nights are widely considered to be contributors.

A lack of sunlight can affect the production of melatonin and serotonin hormones, which are responsible for sleep, mood and appetite. It can also disrupt your circadian rhythm, again impacting sleep-wake cycles. It’s likely a combination of environmental, biological and psychological factors that cause SAD.

What are the winter blues?

Winter blues differ from SAD. Despite low mood, energy and feelings of sadness, it doesn’t interfere with daily function, is limited to winter months and can be managed with lifestyle changes. As many as 35% of Canadians have had the winter blues.

Similarities and differences

SAD and the winter blues share several symptoms: 

  • Oversleeping and increased fatigue
  • Low energy or enthusiasm
  • Changes in appetite, such as cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods such as baked goods and french fries 
  • Weight gain (partly from downing all those carbs)
  • Socializing less or not at all
  • Difficulty concentrating

Where they differ is that SAD symptoms are more severe and may require medical intervention or therapy to manage or resolve. Oversleeping caused by SAD, for instance, could mean more than four extra hours in bed each day. Moreover, SAD seems to run in families. As many as 17 percent of people who develop it have an immediate family member who has had it as well. 

On the other hand, the winter blues may only last a few days or weeks and can be managed with healthy lifestyle changes.

For one reason or another, winter can get us down. Here’s how to handle it if it does.

Tips to beat the winter blues and lower SAD symptoms

Eat healthy

Feed your mind and body the nutrients needed to stay healthy by aiming for a balanced diet. Avoiding sugar, starch and fatty foods can prevent the low energy and weight gain that accompany both the winter blues and SAD. 

For snack ideas and crowd-pleasing recipes, check out ‘Eat Healthier’ tips at Don’tChangeMuch.ca

Up your Vitamin D

The lack of exposure to sunlight can leave your body deficient in Vitamin D. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and phosphorus from the foods you eat, which leads to healthy bones and teeth, and it’s been linked to keeping SAD on the sidelines. Combine catching rays with eating Vitamin D-rich foods like salmon, tuna and leafy green vegetables to help boost your Vitamin D.

According to Health Canada, as many as 80 percent of men don’t get enough Vitamin D naturally from their diets. Talk to a medical professional and/or a pharmacist about Vitamin D supplements. 

Exercise outdoors

Exercise sends stress and sluggishness packing and releases feel-good chemical signals associated with well-being and pleasure. Outdoor activities fill your lungs with fresh air and get you out in the sunshine. From snowmobiling and ice fishing to tobogganing and skiing, winter exercise is as important to our health as it is fun. 

Let the sunshine in

Light therapy is often used to combat SAD and winter blues with a specific type of bright light rather than a regular household light bulb, as those can damage your eyes. It works by causing a chemical change in your brain, and typically it takes 15-30 mins to be effective.

You can also rearrange the places in your home that you spend the most time in to maximize light exposure. For example, moving your sofa or desk next to a window and remembering to open your blinds or curtains every day.

Stick to regular sleep habits

Good sleep hygiene includes going to bed and waking up at more or less the same time, and aiming for 7 to 9 hours of sleep. This will help you sleep better, avoid fatigue and prevent oversleeping. Check out this article by Dr. Arun Garg to help improve your sleep quality.

Do you have ways to keep the winter blues at bay? Share them with us in the comments below.

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