Seasonal depression, or winter blues: Symptoms and treatments
Feeling sad or hopeless, sleepier than usual and lacking energy in recent weeks? These mood changes could be a sign of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — a type of depression that recurs each year for about four to five months.
The feelings most often begin when the days get shorter in the fall and ending when longer hours of daylight return in the spring and summer.
Sometimes called “winter blues,” the seasonal depression affects about 5 percent of the U.S. population and afflicts women far more often than men, according to the nonprofit group Mental Health America. In some regions, however, the tally is considerably higher. In general, the farther you live from the equator, the greater your risk for winter blues.
Health experts generally agree that reduced levels of sunlight in fall and winter months can lead to changes in body chemicals — lowering levels of serotonin, which has been linked to depression, and increasing levels of melatonin, which affects the body’s internal clock and can lead to sleepiness.
Other symptoms of SAD include carbohydrate craving, an increase in appetite overall and weight gain. Treatment for SAD varies, depending on the severity of the condition and its effect on one’s daily life.
Although the winter disorder is by far the most common type of SAD, some people experience the mood changes of seasonal depression in the spring and summer months known as summer-pattern SAD or summer depression.
In winter, most people leave work when it’s turning dark. For this reason, light therapy is typically recommended for those who experience seasonal affective disorder, or even shorter periods of seasonal funk.
This can be as simple as getting some light shortly after awakening. Try to get at least one hour of natural light during the early morning hours, preferably about one hour after your usual morning wake-up time when the circadian clock is most sensitive to light. This is true no matter what your wake-up time is, as long as it’s morning. For people living at northern latitudes where there’s very little sun in winter, light therapy boxes – which replicate outdoor light – can be effective.
You can also improve your sleep quality by avoiding stimulants like coffee, tea or heavy meals close to bedtime. Exercising during the day is also good – it increases serotonin production and supports circadian regulation. A balanced diet of complex carbs and healthy proteins supports steady serotonin and melatonin production, and practicing downtime before bed can reduce stress.
Taking these small steps may help the circadian rhythm adjust faster. For the millions with mood disorders, that could mean happier times during what are literally the darkest days.
Source: The Washington Post and The Conversation