Beating the Winter Blues

6 Jan, 2010 || by

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The link between the amount of sunshine we get and how happy we feel is undeniable. If you have noticed a tendency to feel more depressed and lethargic during the winter months, while feeling relatively normal or better than normal during the rest of the year, you may suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

In people with SAD, the symptoms usually begin in the late fall to early winter, although in some cases the symptoms begin as early as August or as late as January.  Once the symptoms are present, they are likely to linger until spring (around April), and the person suffering from SAD may not feel completely “over it” until May.

Researchers tend to agree that about 5 or 6 percent, or approximately 10 million Americans, experience SAD.  According to the American Medical Association, another 25 million people may experience a milder version of SAD, caller subsyndromal SAD.  Of these 35 million people, women sufferers outnumber men by about four to one, possibly because of a link to the cyclical secretion of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Typically, SAD first strikes a person while in their 20’s, and the chance of developing the disorder tends to decrease with age.  Shift workers who sleep during the day and submarine crews who live without sunlight for long periods of time have higher rates of SAD than the general population.  Geographically, people who live in the northern states are more likely to experience SAD than are people living in the south.  This may be one of the reasons why many retirees migrate to the “sunny south” during the dark, gloomy months of winter.

What Are The Symptoms Of SAD?

The primary symptom of SAD is a significant energy plunge during the fall and winter.  As a result, people report feeling exhausted and having a need for more sleep than usual.  Accompanying this decrease in activity is an increase in appetite (especially for those dreaded “carbs”), weight gain, and “cocooning” (a feeling of not wanting to go anywhere).  Eventually, feelings of sadness and anxiety may dominate one’s mood.  In children, irritability, school problems, and difficulty getting out of bed during the winter may be signs of SAD.

Norman E. Rosenthal, MD, in his book, The Winter Blues, provides a test, the Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire (SPAQ), to help readers determine the degree of seasonal sadness they may be experiencing.  Individuals are asked to rate themselves from “0” to “4” (“0” = No Change”, “1” = Slight, “2” = Moderate, “3” = Marked, and “4” = Extremely Marked Change) in the following areas:

  1. Sleep Length
  2. Social Activity
  3. Mood (overall feeling of wellbeing)
  4. Weight
  5. Appetite
  6. Energy Level

After adding up the numbers in all 6 areas, the result should be a score falling between “0” and “24”.  Scores between “0” and “7” are considered “normal”.  If your score is between 8 and 11, you may have subsyndromal SAD, or what Dr. Rosenthal refers to as the “winter blues”.  Scores of 11 or more are suggestive of true SAD.

What Causes SAD?

The causes of SAD are not clearly understood, but researchers believe it is caused by changes in the availability of sunlight during the winter months.  Our bodies tend to prepare for sleep when the sun goes down (even if we override the desire).  Likewise, our bodies are programmed to awaken when the sun rises (again, unless we override it). During the winter months, as it gets dark earlier, we often try (sometimes struggle) to stay awake until our normal bedtime.

The pattern of staying up later in the evening despite the earlier onset of darkness upsets the body’s 24-hour biological rhythm.  This change in our sleep rhythm, coupled with the decrease in the amount of sunshine during the gloomy winter months, can adversely effect two hormones in our bodies, serotonin and melatonin, both of which are involved in mood, hunger, energy, and sleep.

Lower levels of serotonin are associated with increased carbohydrate cravings, depression, and troubled sleep patterns.  Since carbohydrate-rich foods stimulate the production of serotonin, SAD sufferers often crave sweets and starch-filled foods (potatoes, pasta, bread, etc.) to make themselves feel better, calmer, and less fatigued.  The increased intake of carbohydrates results in only very brief improvement in these areas (if at all), followed by subsequent drops in energy.  This, in turn, leads to the craving of more “quick fix” snacks, “roller-coaster” energy and emotions, and weight gain.  It is not uncommon for a person with SAD to gain 9 to 14 pounds during the winter months.

What Should You Do If You Think You Have SAD?

First and foremost, if you feel you may be suffering from SAD, talk with your physician or other health care provider.  Because SAD is a subtype of a major depressive disorder (or bipolar disorder) with seasonal patterns, it is often treated with medications similar to those used in the treatment of these disorders.  It is also important to rule out other, more medically related reasons for the symptoms, including, but not limited to, an under active thyroid gland (hypothyroidism), low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), or a viral infection such as mononucleosis.

The most common treatment for SAD is “phototherapy”, or light therapy.  Research has shown that exposure to a special light source (not just an ordinary light found in the home) that uses special fluorescent bulbs coated to block out damaging heat and ultraviolet rays, is very effective in the treatment of SAD.  The Center for Environmental Therapeutics, a professional nonprofit organization (www.cet.org), offers more extensive information about SAD and its treatment.

In less severe cases, taking a long walk out in the sunshine or sitting by a window while at work or at home can be helpful. Diet may also play an important role in helping the symptoms of SAD.  Lighter meals during the day help ward off drowsiness and, in the evening, to improve sleep quality.

SAD can be effectively treated through the use, either alone or in combination, of light therapy, psychotherapy, and in some cases the prescription of antidepressant medication.

Above all, try to grab as much sunshine as you can during the throes of winter.

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2 Responses to “Beating the Winter Blues”

  1. Johnathon Fairbairn says:

    Great post! I couldn’t agree more. This is great information, so I appreciate your research into it. Thanks again!

  2. Patti Brady says:

    Great posting!

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