Regulate & Rewire: An Anxiety & Depression Podcast

How to Manage Seasonal Depression

December 05, 2023 Amanda Armstrong Season 1 Episode 42
Regulate & Rewire: An Anxiety & Depression Podcast
How to Manage Seasonal Depression
Show Notes Transcript


Join me for a conversation about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), more commonly referred to as Seasonal Depression. What makes SAD unique is its timing, it has a distinct seasonal onset, typically in winter, and a spontaneous remission of symptoms sometime in spring. In short, it’s just normal depression with a seasonal pattern. 

In this conversation I'll unpack more on what it is, what might be contributing to it and some research supported things you can do to alleviate symptoms. In this conversation I'll discuss how the environmenal variable that is most closely tied to seasonal depression is the changes to daylight house and I'll present you with some new science that presents a possible light exposure proticold that could be impactful for anyone struggling with SAD.

Hit play to lean more!

 CLICK HERE for full show notes + 3 takeaways!


Looking for more personalized support? Join me inside RISE, my mental health membership and nervous system healing space for those struggling with anxiety or depression. Sliding scale pricing available.





Welcome to regulate and rewire and anxiety and depression podcast where we discuss the things I wish someone would have taught me earlier in my healing journey. I'm your host, Amanda Armstrong, and I'll be sharing my steps, my missteps, client experiences and tangible research based tools to help you regulate your nervous system. rewire your mind and reclaim your life. Thanks for being here. Now let's dive in.

Hi, Friends, welcome back. Please, someone needs to tell me how it is already December and even more. So how in the world my new baby is already almost seven months. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know the last handful of months here in my household have just flown by. But here we are. Winter is here. days are shorter weather is gloomier holidays are upon us. And all of this can be a lot. It can be a lot of joy. It can also come with a lot of hard. And most of us I think there's a little bit of that, like, yes. And maybe you like the holidays, yes, and are stressed out over finances or feeling triggered by a family member. Maybe you're excited about building a snowman. Yes. And the daily gloom is causing your mood to darken a bit. And that's the conversation I want to have with you today is spending a lot of time talking about seasonal depression. And what I want to talk about today and next week are common mental health struggles that come up around the winter season and holiday months to just provide real time, whatever support I can to those of you who are listening. 

And in preparing for these conversations, I didn't want to just guess at what you needed support with. So instead, I asked those of you podcast listeners, you might have seen on my Instagram stories about a week ago. What things you struggle with most this time of year. And you showed up with so much vulnerability and authenticity. I know I was going to ask the question, I knew I was gonna get some answers. But I'm always just incredibly blown away by how readily and how vulnerably you are willing to share and contribute to this space. So a big thank you to those of you who did write in. And I will be addressing as many of your struggles as I can in these couple weeks. 

And why I want to start with seasonal depression is because this is something that got submitted by many, many people to varying degrees. And even if this isn't something that you struggle with, I urge you to keep listening today because I can almost promise you that somebody that you know and love does struggle with this. I'm also going to share some really nerdy fun science about your eyes and sunlight, bright light therapy, making some suggestions that are good for overall mental and physical health for anybody in human body, whether you struggle with seasonal depression or not. And I also want to know that a lot of what I'm going to share today is based on an accumulation of research, but primarily compiled information from three specific researchers. The first being Dr. Andrew Huberman, who many of you might be familiar with. He has a really popular podcast, who is a neuroscientist out of Stanford, Dr. Samer guitar, who is the chief of the section on light and circadian rhythms at the National Institute of Mental Health. And Dr. Catherine Rockline, who is a primary investigator in the seasonality research program at the University of Pittsburgh. And I will link in the full show notes on my website various resources that point back to these individuals, as well as some of the peer reviewed research studies that I will be pulling from. So show notes on the website are going to be pretty pretty hefty for today's conversation. And the last thing before we dive in is just this reminder that this podcast is always for informational and educational purposes only. It is not medical care or advice. So please seek that out if you are in need of that support or level of personalization based on anything that comes up in today's conversation.

So what is seasonal affective disorder more commonly known as a seasonal depression? This is simply depression with a seasonal pattern. So what makes seasonal affective disorder unique is its timing. It has a distinct seasonal onset, typically in the winter, and a spontaneous remission of symptoms sometime in spring. And people with seasonal depression experience classic depression symptoms things like sadness, irritability, trouble concentrating lack of interest in active These changes in sleep or appetite, it's almost like they are you just want to hibernate and have this low mood most of the day on most days, this funk you just don't seem to be able to pull yourself out of. 

And what's going to become abundantly clear by the end of our conversation today is that the environmental variable that is most closely tied to seasonal depression is the changes to daylight hours. And I want to put a note in here that you don't have to live in a cold or a snowy place to experience seasonal depression. people experience it even in sunny climates like Florida or Southern California. And what contributes to seasonal depression could be a number of different things. But it is very, very clear that for the majority of people struggling and the biggest contributing factor to seasonal depression, it has to do with natural light, the shorter days and longer nights. And this is what we will spend the majority of our conversation on today. 

But before we do, I want to briefly discuss some other contributing factors, I want to give you some context to be able to maybe step back in your own experience and say, if this is something I'm struggling with, or if this is something a loved one is struggling with, what might be the various contributing factors. And the reason I think it's important to step back into that assessment is because your unique contributing factors can inform what particular interventions or treatments might be the most supportive for you. And so before getting into different things that can contribute to seasonal depression, I want to first talk about three treatments that have been studied enough to be considered what we call empirically supportive treatments. And those three are number one antidepressant medication, number two, bright light therapy. And number three is CBT SAD, or cognitive behavior therapy, focused on seasonal affective disorder. And what that does is it really focuses on the thoughts and behaviors that are exhibited in the winter, when you're suffering with negative mood. And that level, or that type of therapeutic support may also be really beneficial in helping to manage additional seasonal or relational stressors that come with this time of year. 

And on top of those three treatments, I want for a minute to also layer in the nervous system ladder and the stress bucket concepts that you have heard me refer to often on this podcast where we put depression in that red zone, or that shutdown state. This is the place we get to when there is an overwhelming amount of stressors put on our system. And those stressors can be any combination of environmental, relational, biological. So if you are somebody who is struggling with these winter blues, it is likely because either number one, there are particular stressors that are unique to this season that overload your system to the point of shutdown. And or number two, there might be a biological factor having to do with particular cells in your eyes, that might make you more or less susceptible to seasonal depression. And we're going to talk about that number two extensively in a few minutes. 

But here, I want to zoom back a little bit and more generally talk about depression for a second. The thing about depression that can be really, really frustrating is that despite what you might think, or what you might have been told, the research really isn't clear about what causes depression, we aren't really sure what biologically happens in people struggling with depression. And this is likely because there are different things happening in different people. And this is why it is so common for people with depression to have to undergo long periods of trial and error before finding the treatment that works best for them. And even though I just listed three empirically supported treatments, each of those only has about a 50% success rate. So that means that of everyone who gets put on antidepressants, it only helps about 50% of people, light therapy 50% of people cognitive behavior therapy 50% of people. And the hypothesis behind this is that every individual has a different root cause different contributing factors to what is creating this old potential overload on their system. And so if the root cause of your symptoms is different well, then there are going to be different treatments that are more or less effective for you. And so I think it can be incredibly helpful to before jumping right into treatment for presenting symptoms to zoom out and ask some questions. Are your symptoms potentially more biologically derived? Are there any biomarker testing that we can get done? Do you have basic bloodwork done to show that there isn't a glaring hormone imbalance or nutrient deficiency? What is the current stress load on your system? How about your trauma history? What are your daily lifestyle habits, and something that's unique to research around seasonal depression right now is that there is research showing us that there are other biomarkers that could be helpful around seasonal depression looking at something called retinal responsivity, which just measures your eyes responsiveness to light, this could cue you into whether bright light therapy would be particularly effective to you. 

So what I'm trying to get at here is that understanding your biology, your physiology, more comprehensively, can be critically helpful in making choices about your mental health. I understand why we want like the cause of depression to be simple, because it means that the solution can be prescribed and can be more universally helpful as well. But what is becoming more and more clear is that what causes one person's depression might be different than what causes another person's, which is why it is again, critically important, in my opinion, to spend this time upfront trying to determine a more personalized root cause analysis to inform a more strategic and personalized healing approach. And again, this is something that I intend to be able to facilitate in in my own way, in our own way at Rise As We, next year, I'm looking to bring on a nurse practitioner to help our clients order and analyze blood tests, who in tandem can look at different lifestyle and health data that you can get from your an aura ring, or a Fitbit or your Apple Watch, looking at things like sleep quality, heart rate variability. And then we have coaches on our team who can help you unpack your life stressors and look at the ways that past traumatic experiences are still impacting you today. And all of this, this whole human whole life approach that gives mental and physical health this equal seat at the table that takes into consideration your psychology as well as your physiology. This is going to help our clients really understand their unique profile of possible contributing factors to their symptoms, which will in turn inform a more personalized and strategic path towards healing. 

And this is why I love understanding depression as an overwhelmed system, because it provides a lot of space for personal nuance. And what might put a stress load on your system enough to be causing seasonal depression might be biological factors. But it also might simply be added stressors of the season. Things like feelings of loneliness, being triggered, or maybe grief that comes up in big ways around your unique family circumstances. There's often more to do during the holiday season, this could put more strain on your time, your schedule or your sleep, there might be financial strain or decision fatigue around gifts or travel plans. Nutritionally, there's often more food consumption, especially more sugar consumed, which can put a stress load on our system as well. So it's possible that for someone, all of these seasonal stressors, regardless of a biological component, it could be that that your unique stress load around this time of year puts enough of a stress load on your system that that shutdown happens. 

So when it comes to seasonal depression, what we know, especially based on those three treatments I talked about earlier is that serotonin might be part of the answer. We know that seasonal lifestyle stressors, thoughts and behaviors are part of the answer. And we know that the way our body processes information about light from our environment, biologically is another part of the answer. And remember, those treatments only have about a 50% effectiveness each and I want to reiterate this for two reasons because number one, if you have tried one of these solutions, and it's not working for you, it might not be you that's the problem. It's likely a treatment that is addressing one of the three variables that might be the least relevant for you. And I say least relevant because I think for most people struggling with seasonal depression and depression in general, there is likely a combination of factors and specifically to seasonal depression, the research is pretty clear that the most universally impactful variable is light. And the second reason I want to reiterate this is if you can, yourself or in the care of a practitioner, spend a little bit more time piecing together your unique experience, or maybe even get some testing done, then you will likely be able to find the most effective treatment to start with, because seasonal affective disorder is seasonal. So taking the time this year to understand your unique underlying mechanism that most contributes to your system will support you year after year after year after year to have a decrease in symptoms. 

Because if it's stressors, then the most effective treatment will be to make some lifestyle changes to get really good at setting boundaries, again, all tailored to your unique stressors of this time of year. And if it's a serotonin component, then again, there are very research supported lifestyle changes you can make to support neurotransmitters. Light actually impacts serotonin, we'll talk about that in a minute. And it serotonin. This is the main thing that antidepressants target. So if you're someone who has found relief with medication that target serotonin, then that's likely a component and either number one meds are supportive and they work for you. And or you want to take a more holistic approach to serotonin support. And then there's this clear biological component of sunlight. And that is what I want to talk more about. Because I think the research around light therapy, especially specific to seasonal depression, is really, really fascinating and promising. I also think that this is a great entry point for somebody just trying to figure out where they can start and supporting themselves. Because it's something that you can do from home. It's something that is free if you step outside your front door or relatively inexpensive issue, if you choose to go with a happy lamp or a bright light pad. 

Now let's take a few minutes and get a little nerdy and talk about the science behind why light matters, why bright light therapy might even work. So in 2001, researchers discovered a cell in the retina that's part of your eye that no one previously knew about. And these cells are similar to rods and cones, in that they respond to certain photons of light. Now this new cell called melanopsin cells, sends signals to the part of your brain that sets your circadian clock. This is your internal clock that keeps you waking up in the morning and sleeping at night. And it is critical, and always has been for human development and well being. Now unless you live exactly on the equator, all people everywhere on the planet experience some measure of shorter days and longer nights. But not all people all over the planet experience seasonal depression. And what some recent research has hypothesized is that these melanopsin cells that are less reactive to light can make people more vulnerable to seasonal depression. So the studies measure the retinal responses to light and there was a study published man, I think just like two or three years ago, showing that people with seasonal affective disorder, seasonal depression do tend to have lower retinal effectiveness to light. And a more recent publication showed that this happens only in winter months, not summer. These individuals did not have lower retinol effectiveness in summer. And a lot of this research is being done in the lab where Dr. Rockline is and she shared that what we know is that there is something going on in winter in people struggling with seasonal depression, such that their retinas just are not responding to light in the same way as other people without depression. And she went on to say that these next steps in research would be to show in an evidence based way. If those with lower retinal responsivity have particular positive improvements, and experience benefits from bright light therapy and the hypothesis is that they likely should. And I could truly go on and on and on for hours about the really cool research that's happening around the importance of natural light for our overall health and well being. And this is something that's universal to human beings, not just people struggling with depression, but possibly especially this information is important if you are somebody struggling with depression. 

So bringing this back, seasonal depression has been primarily linked to these five things. Number one, reduced sunlight, so shorter daylight hours and less sunlight can disrupt our body's internal clock leading to feelings of depression. Number two is serotonin levels. Also noting that reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, which affects mood and can trigger depression. Number three is melatonin levels. So changes in seasons can disrupt the balance of your body's level of melatonin. Number four is your biological clock, your circadian rhythms, again, reduced exposure to sunlight we're seeing we're seeing a really big pattern here. reduced exposure to sunlight can disrupt your body's circadian rhythms, leading to feelings of depression. And number four is vitamin D deficiency. So sunlight is a natural source of vitamin D. And there's some conflicting research here as to whether low vitamin D is more prevalent in people struggling with seasonal depression versus not, but it could potentially be a contributing factor. And the common factor in all of these, all five of these things that are primarily linked to seasonal depression is this common factor of sunlight exposure. And this is because light directs a number of key aspects of our physiology in ways that strongly impact our overall health. And well being light directly impacts your mood, your sleep, your ability to wake up and focus your hormone levels, your immune system, and light impacts your ability to cope with stress. And one other just weird fact I'll throw out there that I came across this week is Did you know that based on the Earth's tilt in relation to the sun, what creates the longer nights it influences your melatonin release?

Friends, we are nature. And the further we get from it, the sicker we become. There's seasonality to everything. And we no longer honor that modern day life expects us to show up and be the same 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, when our biology shows us that we go through biological changes as humans during major seasonal changes. And when it comes to light, think about this accurate light perception is critical. Daylight length is one of the primary things that animals use to time at their mating behavior. They need to deliver offspring when there's the most abundant amount of food. And we know that in places where artificial light is high. This can cause major disruptions in animals natural patterns, they either start meeting much earlier or later. And this can cause their numbers to dwindle in significant ways. There's also a seasonality to being human. And we see this even more starkly in places in the world that have these drastic Light and Darkness shifts. But we have destroyed our seasonality in so many ways because we don't get exposure to that natural light throughout the day. And we have so many sources of artificial light. And regardless what we normalize as a modern society, you still live inside a human body that doesn't and hasn't evolved with the pace of society. In many ways your human body would be thrilled to still be living in community with no artificial lights, no social media, no news. But the reality is that we're not going back to that place. 

And instead of being angry about how profoundly sick a lot of our cultural norms are making us, I instead try to operate from a place of awareness. I want to know how my body works, what it needs at its most basic levels. So I can choose to both support my nervous system to support my mental and physical health while still staying a part of modern society. So the bottom line here is that light exposure is big. And this is really helpful information because it's something that you have immediate and in most cases totally free access to. One of the highest payoff habits for or anyone, all the time is to get out side in the mornings. Get outside, when there's that low horizon light, within the first hour ish of being awake. Without sunglasses, that's it. Wake up, go outside for five to 30 minutes. If it is a really, really sunny day, you can get away with about five to 10 minutes. If it is a really cloudy day being out there, as long as you can, about 30 minutes should do it. And I always operate from the policy of something is better than nothing. Almost every single one of us would have our mental and physical health change in measurable ways. If that was a habit that we stepped into. You wake up in the morning, walk outside, turn in the direction of the sun, Please don't stare directly at the sun. I think that goes without saying and be there better yet if you're going on a walk first thing in the morning. And you can get that natural sunlight and your movement in in a 10 to 30 minute walk first thing in the morning. 

There is so much research that shows that that simple habit alone has major ripple effects into our well being. And if you're somebody who wakes up before the sun is out in the morning, this is where a lamp pad, one of those light pads I'll talk more about in a minute can be really, really helpful. And then still get outside as soon as that sun does come up over the horizon. And a quote from Dr. Huberman is getting sunlight in your eyes first thing in the morning is absolutely vital to mental and physical health. It is perhaps the most important thing that any and all of us can and should do in order to promote metabolic well being promote the positive function of your hormone system, and to get your mental health steering in the right direction. So that is my advice for almost everyone all the time, 365 days a year. But especially now in winter, and doubly especially if you are somebody struggling with seasonal depression, get outside get outside, get outside as often as you can for as long as you can, especially in the morning. 

And other beneficial light protocols to think about is if you can get back outside, near sunset. So what we're looking for is these low horizon sunlight hours are what really helps to set our circadian clock. And the other thing is to avoid bright artificial light between 10pm and 4am. So if you are somebody who was one of my neighbors looking in the windows of my house, in a totally non creepy way, what you'll notice is that as the sun goes down, my home gets darker and darker and darker. By and large. We stop using overhead lights in my home when the sun goes down, and instead we use table lamps or lower light settings allowing the home to dark and as we get closer and closer to bed is really beneficial for circadian rhythms and sleep as well. morning sunlight being the priority, if you can get outside at about sunset time. And then also what can you do to allow the lights in your home to dim as well. All of these different light exposures or changes has positive benefits for our mental and physical health. 

And even through this podcast, I can already hear some of you protesting because I've heard the protests from individuals in my rise membership of Amanda I literally live in the tundra, or I work a night shift. And I'm up before the sun and then I'm indoors until the sun goes down. What does this look like for me. And one of the things I love so much about my rise membership is that I get to work personally with our clients and all of their like, But Amanda but I'm here to help them find personalized ways to work these things into their day in a way that supports their mental health. But let's say you do you live in a place where it is freezing, then you likely have a good coat. And I know it's not convenient. I know it's not fun to be outside when it's freezing. But one of the most beneficial things that you can do for seasonal depression is to get outside in the morning. And it would be again amazing if you could get outside for that morning walk. But even if you're just standing in your doorway or sitting on your porch face the direction of the sun and just let it come into your eyeballs and touch your skin. And for those of you who don't live in obscenely cold places there is actually research that shows that there can be additional benefits for exposing Have as much skin as possible while being outside and I am not suggesting that you go streaking in your neighborhood. But for me, even in winter here on the East Coast, there are occasionally days where I can get away with a short sleeve shirt outside, I'm cold, for sure. But whenever I can handle it, I want to get the additional benefits of Sun getting on to my skin as well as in my eyes. But really, the key here is get outside in any way that you can in the morning.

Now, before wrapping up, I do want to give a little bit more detail on these artificial light boxes, or light pads or happy lamps, all of these things that contribute to bright light therapy. And this is something I got asked about recently inside my Rhys membership. And in response to that question, as well as prepping for this podcast, I've looked a lot more into this, and I'm not gonna lie, I went into this pretty skeptical just thinking it's another gimmicky thing that somebody is trying to make a buck off of. But it turns out that there is actually some pretty good research to back this up. And it can be a really helpful alternative for those of you who wake up before the sun, who maybe don't get enough sunlight where you live, or if you can't seem to get yourself outside consistently. And I will reiterate, there's no replacement for getting actual sunlight into your eyeballs or onto your skin. But if you need more than you can acquire from the great outdoors for whatever reason, this could be a helpful alternative. And I've even learned in the last week that these happy lamps are prescribed in some countries for seasonal depression. 

So what let's talk about what they are, these sunlight lamps or light therapy devices are designed to mimic natural outdoor light, the best and artificial device can so they produce a specific wavelength of light that is thought to trigger a chemical change in the brain to lighten mood and ease other symptoms of seasonal depression. And I want to make it very clear again, that I'm not offering medical advice, I'm not telling you that you should purchase this or that it will work for you. I am presenting information that I got through many, many hours of research research that was convincing enough for me to purchase one for myself. And I will additionally link in the show notes, the light that I purchased and a couple of alternatives for any of you who are looking into this. But I urge you to do your own research and even talk to health care provider if you have any questions or concerns. But here's a few other things to know if you are going to try out light therapy for seasonal affective disorder, it is recommended that you use these in the morning and not at night. In fact, they can negatively impact you if you are using them at night. 

So here are some general guidelines for using a light pad. Number one is morning use the same time within an hour of waking up. So here's the other thing about your circadian rhythms, they want you to wake up and go to sleep consistently seven days a week. So that is a piece of sleep hygiene that is really, really critical for overall well being. So getting in a habit and getting support if you need in the behavior change of waking up at about the same time every day. Because if you were to be prescribed this from a practitioner, what it usually looks like is about 20 to 45 minutes in front of your LightPad within the first hour or so of you waking up at the same time, seven days a week. And ideally, you're also getting outside for real natural sunlight as well. Remember, the goal of light therapy is to simulate exposure to sunlight. So think about it as a nurturing your nature in terms of light exposure and circadian rhythms. 

And then back to what we talked about earlier. Other things that might be supportive for navigating and managing seasonal depression are getting professional support from somebody who specializes in it. And who can help you more accurately pinpoint the most prevalent contributing factors and stressors to help guide you to the right and most personalized approach, really asking yourself the question, is it that you need to take a more biological approach with sunlight and lightboxes even adjustments to food intake? Are there other contributing lifestyle factors? Or is there more of an emotional and stress management approach that's needed around the seasonal holiday? And if you check out the show notes, I'll also add a list of 10 other research supported steps that you can take or consider to alleviate symptoms. 

But let's go ahead and bring this all together with our three takeaways from this conversation. 

Number one is that seasonal affective disorder is depression with a seasonal pattern to it with various possible contributing factors. But the research is pretty clear that the decrease in daylight hours is one of the biggest contributing factors. And second to this, that I think is worth exploring is the added life stressors of this season that are particularly predictable and cyclical for you. And I want to reiterate that understanding your unique contributing factors can lead you to what will likely be your most supportive intervention to minimizing symptoms. 

And number two, is that new research shows that people with lower retinal effectiveness might be at higher risk for seasonal depression. And enhancing and making testing things like this more accessible could give individuals presenting with seasonal depression symptoms, really helpful information again, pointing to or away from particular interventions as more or less of a helpful starting point. 

And TAKEAWAY NUMBER THREE, is that daily morning sunlight is essential for optimal health of every human all the time, but appears especially supportive for those struggling with seasonal depression, who might also see additional benefits in supplementing natural light with a bright light therapy pad. 

That is all we have time for today. There are so many other avenues, and ways of seeking out and getting support for seasonal depression that I could have gone into. But I really wanted to focus today on this conversation around light, I think it's a unique angle, it is something that is accessible to all of you. And it's very, very, very research supported. And like I said, I'll add a lot more resources on this topic, to the full show notes on my website, if you'd like to check that out. 

And I also just want to put out there that I was finally able to announce that I am publishing a book next year, I have spent the last year or so writing a book on the vagus nerve, and overall a nervous system approach to anxiety and depression. And I will tell you all about the book in future conversations. But for now, just know I'm going to drop a link to pre order the book in the show notes. Because apparently, pre orders are incredibly important for first time authors, which I am. So this is my ask if you have been benefiting from this podcast in any way. It would be such an amazing thank you to me if you would preorder my book. 

All right, sending you so much hope and healing. Thanks for being here, and I'll see you next time. 

Thanks for listening to another episode of The regulate and rewire podcast. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and leave a five star review to help us get these powerful tools out to even more people who need them. And if you yourself are looking for more personalized support and applying what you've learned today, consider joining me inside Rhys, my monthly mental health membership and nervous system healing space or apply for our one on one anxiety depression coaching program restore. I've shared a link for more information to both in the show notes. Again, thanks so much for being here. And I'll see you next time.

Transcribed by