Earlier sunsets and falling temperatures are sure signs that winter has arrived in the Southeast. But, for some people these signs are dreadful reminders that their “Winter Blues” will make a return. “Winter Blues” is a common name for a type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD comes and goes with the seasons and usually begins in the late fall and early winter, stopping during the spring and summer. It is common for people to experience some low moods during the colder and darker days of winter. For example, some people feel more tired and lethargic during the winter months. However, for people with SAD, the low moods are more severe and hinder their ability to enjoy life.
The exact cause behind SAD is unknown, however research has found that people with SAD may have trouble regulating serotonin, one of the key chemicals involved in mood. People with SAD may overproduce the hormone melatonin. Darkness increases production of melatonin, which regulates sleep. As winter days become shorter, melatonin production increases, leaving people with SAD to feel sleepier and more lethargic. People with SAD also may produce less Vitamin D. Vitamin D is believed to play a role in serotonin activity. Vitamin D insufficiency may be associated with clinically significant depression symptoms.
Symptoms of the winter pattern of SAD
- Daytime sleepiness
- Trouble sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- Weight gain
- Craving carbohydrates
- Social withdrawal
Beating the blues
There are three main treatments for SAD: medication, light therapy, and psychotherapy. Drug treatment for people diagnosed with SAD usually includes prescribing a class of antidepressants called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). These drugs can help increase the level of serotonin in the brain. Light therapy replaces the lack of sunshine during the fall and winter months with the use of special lamps called light boxes that imitate natural sunlight. Sitting in front of the light boxes for a period of time helps make a change in brain chemicals that regulate mood. Psychotherapy can help SAD sufferers learn coping mechanisms for dealing with winter and identify negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts. In addition to medical treatments, lifestyle changes can help alleviate SAD symptoms.
- Let in the light. Open blinds and/or curtains to let in as much natural light as possible.
- Get active. Exercise can increase serotonin and endorphins, which both affect mood.
- Go outside. On sunny days, try going outside for some natural sunlight. Being in the sun can raise moods and help skin make Vitamin D.
- Eat healthy. A healthy, balanced diet supports a positive mood, provides energy and helps stave off winter weight gain. At meal or snack times, include multiple servings of vegetables and fruits to resist the urge to overindulge in carbohydrates.
- Be social. Engaging with people is good for mental health and helps to distract the focus from depression.
If you are experiencing symptoms of SAD or depression, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider as soon as possible.