BlogMental health in the changing seasons

Mental health in the changing seasons

9 min read

Emily Ledger

Mental health in the changing seasons

As we head into the spring and out of the dark, cold months of winter, we’re shedding some light on how the changing seasons play an often overlooked role in our mental health. From ‘Blue Monday’ to ‘Yellow Day’, we’ll explore seasons' significance in common mental health struggles and the role of medical and wellness interventions.

Contents

Today is the first day of spring - a fact that many of us will be relieved to hear after the wettest winter in 130 years. But relief for getting out of the darker, colder months can often be about more than just the weather. In recent years, there has been increased awareness around the role seasons can play in our mental health - particularly with the familiarisation of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Yet, while many of us may notice changes in our overall mood and mental health throughout the year, we might not always know why. 

SAD - Seasonal Affective Disorder

While many people may experience the “winter blues” as the days become shorter, significant changes in your mood may be a sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is most commonly experienced in winter and goes away in the spring-summer months - this may be referred to as winter-pattern SAD or winter depression; however, some people may experience symptoms of SAd in the summer months (summer-pattern SAD or summer depression), though this is less common.

The condition is characterised by depressive symptoms with a recurrent seasonal pattern. These symptoms tend to last around 4-5 months out of the year. The National Institute of Mental Health describes depression as experiencing symptoms most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks. Some signs and symptoms of depression and SAD may include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feeling hopeless or pessimistic
  • Having no energy, or feeling fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Being unable to enjoy things that usually bring you pleasure
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite or unplanned weight changes
  • Physical aches and pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems
  • Losing interest in seeing people
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

People experiencing SAD may also experience additional symptoms. For example, you may find it hard to get out of bed in the morning and feel sleepy throughout the day. Winter-pattern SAD may also be linked to food cravings - particularly for foods that are high in carbohydrates. 

While SAD can affect anyone (it is estimated that around 5% of the population experience SAD), if you have another mental health condition, you may find that your symptoms get worse when you are affected by SAD.

What causes SAD?

The exact cause of SAD is not fully understood; however, it is often linked to changes in the amount of sunlight throughout the year. Sunlight has been found to have a significant effect on our circadian rhythm - a natural cycle that dictates multiple processes in the body.

SAD and the Circadian rhythm

Also referred to as the “body clock”, the link between the circadian rhythm and light is extremely important in many aspects of our mental and physical well-being. The body’s circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that plays a vital role in coordinating various processes to occur throughout the day and night. It influences not only our sleep pattern but also our moods, body temperature, and even cardiovascular function. 

Shorter daylight hours in the autumn and winter months lead to a delay in circadian rhythms which in turn affect the sleep/wake cycle. It is theorised that delays to the circadian rhythm during this period exacerbate fatigue, particularly difficulty getting up in the morning and less restorative sleep. Sleep disturbances such as these have been linked to mental health difficulties, including the onset of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. 

Light also affects the production of melatonin - an endogenous hormone that is essential in promoting sleep. The body initiates the production of melatonin in response to darkness. As we experience longer periods of darkness in the winter months, people with SAD may be affected by an overproduction of melatonin, leading to increased feelings of sleepiness and lethargy. 

How is SAD treated?

The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that SAD should be treated in the same way as other types of depression. People who have received a diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder may be offered several treatment options, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), light therapy and antidepressants. 

However, other, non-prescribed management techniques may also be beneficial to patients with SAD, as well as those experiencing seasonal changes to their mental health. For example:

Getting as much natural sunlight as possible - As sunlight (or lack thereof) can have such a drastic effect on our mood, getting as much of it as possible can be extremely beneficial. Even a brief walk at lunchtime - the brightest period of the day - could be beneficial.

Taking regular exercise - Exercise is extremely beneficial for both our physical and mental health. Getting regular exercise, particularly outdoors and in natural light, can help boost mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Eat a balanced diet - Nutrition is extremely important for our overall health and well-being. Avoid eating too much “junk” food and opt for foods that are rich in natural vitamins and minerals.

Daylight alarms - If the dark mornings are making it difficult to get out of bed, sunrise alarm clocks may be a good investment. These alarms work by gradually lighting up your bedroom when it’s time to get up - just as the sunlight would in the summer!

How could spring affect my mental health?

Winter-pattern SAD may be the most common form of the condition, but some people may experience heightened mental health challenges at the start of spring. In fact, some studies suggest that mental health symptoms may actually become worse during the spring. Interestingly, just as a lack of sunlight can be linked to winter-pattern SAD, an abundance of it may also present its own problems. 

In particular, the brighter months may also be associated with disruption to sleep. Extended daylight hours can potentially lead to a reduction in melatonin production which may make it more difficult for individuals to get to sleep at night. Furthermore, earlier mornings can make it harder to stay asleep when the sun rises, leading to an overall reduction in sleep time. Together, these sleep disturbances can have a similar effect on mental health to those seen in winter SAD.

Managing mental health changes in the spring

If you find yourself experiencing increased or persistent mental health symptoms in the spring and summer months, especially if they are disrupting your everyday life, it is recommended that you speak with your doctor. They may be able to prescribe therapies or medications that could help. But there may also be some things you can try at home to improve your mood, sleep, and other symptoms. 

Melatonin supplements - Supplements are often an accessible way to provide your body with the boost it needs. Melatonin supplements can be purchased in pharmacies or prescribed by your doctor. While these supplements are generally safe to take, it is usually recommended that you speak with your doctor who will be able to advise you on dosing.

Install black-out blinds/curtains - If it has been taking you a long time to get to sleep in spring and summer, the last thing you need is to be woken up by the early rising sun. Investing in black-out blinds or curtains can help you to stay asleep for longer in the brighter months.

Diet and exercise - As we already mentioned, getting regular exercise and eating a balanced diet is extremely beneficial for your mental health - at any time of the year!

Could medical cannabis help with symptoms of SAD?

Medical cannabis was legalised in the UK in 2018 and has since been made available on prescription for a wide range of conditions. Currently, research exploring the effects of cannabis on depression is limited; however, there is growing evidence to support its potential in the management of other symptoms and conditions that often co-occur with depression.

For example, the rise of CBD wellness has seen a huge surge in the use of cannabis-based products for the management of anxiety and poor sleep. According to a 2021 survey of CBD users, the top four reasons for using CBD-based products were to tackle anxiety (42.6%), sleep problems (42.5%), stress (37%), and to improve general health and well-being (37%).

Medical cannabis can now be prescribed for the treatment of depression and other mental health conditions where first-line therapies have been ineffective. Accessing medical cannabis through prescription can help to give you peace of mind over the quality of the products and a clearer idea of suitable dosing - particularly in situations where symptoms may change throughout the year.

Final Thoughts

It is common to experience changes in our mental health as the seasons come and go. All manner of things can affect our mood, sleep patterns, and energy levels at different times of the year. For some, taking a daytime walk or improving diet may help, but when symptoms remain persistent, it may be time to take further action. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, speak with your doctor - they will be able to provide you with professional advice on what to do next.

At Releaf, we believe that access to medical cannabis is important. That's why we offer tailored monthly packages based on your cannabis prescription, specialist consultations for medical cannabis, and a unique medical cannabis card for protection.

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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Authors

Emily, an accomplished content writer with a specialisation in cannabis and alternative health, leverages her five years in the sector to enhance education and diminish stigma around medicinal cannabis use.

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