If falling leaves, grey skies and shorter days only give you the winter blues, you’re not alone. Odds are you’re one of the estimated six percent of the U.S. population affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Or you’re among the other 14 percent adult population suffering from a lesser form of seasonal mood changes known as the ‘winter blues,’ according to Dr. Norman Rosenthal, author of the book Winter Blues.

Both SAD and winter blues are a type of depression that literally comes and goes with the seasons and affects sufferers only during winter months. According to Web MD, SAD is regarded as a major depression disorder (MDD). Women are four times more likely to suffer from SAD than men, and having relatives who’ve experienced SAD or another type of depression, puts you at greater risk.

With so many Americans suffering, is there any hope, or are we simply destined to continue to spin on this annual wheel of depression?

In order to better understand if you are affected by SAD, it’s important to understand the symptoms. Everyone has days when they are feeling a bit down. But according to the Mayo Clinic, when you suffer from SAD your symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Hypersomnia
  • Overeating
  • Weight gain
  • Craving for carbohydrates
  • Social withdrawal (feel like “hibernating”)
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

For example, according to Dr. Rosenthal, people with SAD report sleeping an average of 2.5 hours more in winter than in the summer, and people with the winter blues sleep 1.7 hours more. Whereas the general population sleeps only 0.7 hours more in the winter than the rest of the year.

Despite extensive research on the symptoms associated with SAD, there is no exact known cause. And, as with any medical mystery, experts continue to come up with theories to explain this growing disorder:

  • According to Web MD, less sunlight during winter leads to the brain making less serotonin, a chemical linked to brain pathways that regulate mood. When nerve cell pathways in the brain that regulate mood don’t function normally, the result can be feelings of depression, along with symptoms of fatigue and weight gain.
  • According to the National Institute of Mental Health, with less exposure to sunlight in winter, your internal biological clock that regulates mood, sleep, and hormones, shifts.
  • According to the National Institute of Mental Health, lack of sunlight stimulates the production of melatonin which contributes to the symptoms of sluggishness and sleepiness.

One thing is certain, there is a definite link between available sunlight hours and SAD. In fact, The National Institute of Mental Health suggests that living farther from the equator can increase your risk of developing SAD.

In Wisconsin, the summer solstice on June 20th offers 15 hours & 22 minutes of sunlight during 64.03% of the day. In contrast, the winter solstice on December 21st provides only 9 hours of sunlight during 37.50% of the day. This graph depicts the percentage of daylight at the beginning of each quarter. It’s clear how quickly one’s mood can recover in spring!

Percent of sunlight in a day bar graph
Data Source https://sunrise-sunset.org/

But even with so little known, there is still hope. It is possible to break the annual cycle and get off the wheel of depression that is SAD. Self-help and treatment for SAD can include:

  1. Get as much natural sunlight as possible – even just a short walk at lunch can help.
  2. Exercise regularly.
  3. Reach out to family and friends – let them help!
  4. As much as you may crave sugar and carbs, foods such as oatmeal, whole grain bread, brown rice, and bananas can boost your feel-good serotonin levels without the subsequent sugar crash.
  5. According to Dr. Rosenthal, 60 to 80 percent of SAD sufferers benefit from light therapy, and mornings tend to be the best time for the therapy to work.
  6. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or working with the right therapist to curb negative thoughts
  7. SSRI antidepressants work by acting on serotonin levels in the brain to reduce SAD symptoms.

Sources:
https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/sunshine-for-sad-sufferers#1
https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651
https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml

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