Winter Blues? 9 Ways to Fight Seasonal Depression

By E’Louise Ondash, RN, contributor

The sun is finally on its long path northward, but there are still plenty of days ahead with a shortage of daylight hours. While some can live with sunsets at 4 p.m., others have difficulty coping with a lack of sunlight. They become depressed and have low energy and little motivation. Irritability and insomnia may occur, as well as a craving for high-carbohydrate foods and subsequent weight gain. Short days are especially difficult for those living in colder climes because inclement weather can force residents to stay inside.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, can give people the winter blues

All of these symptoms--which can range from mild to severe--make up a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder or, appropriately, SAD. Also known as the winter blues or winter depression, SAD is a disorder that occurs in people who have normal mental health during most of the year, but experience symptoms of depression during the winter.

In a few exceptional cases, people can experience SAD during the summer months, but, in either case, symptoms are seasonal; they disappear when the season ends.

In general, symptoms of SAD begin to appear in early to mid-October, according to William Weggel, MD, a psychiatrist with the Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wisc. The city of 68,000 is about 90 minutes east of Minneapolis, making it one of the country’s northern-most; hence, long winters with short days.

“In general, the symptoms of SAD are not quite as severe as conventional depression,” Weggel explained. “There is certainly no psychotic component like hallucinations or delusions, [but] it can interfere with productivity and quality of life.”

Why doesn’t everyone get the winter blues?

No one really knows why some people develop SAD and others don’t, Weggel said. Age is not a factor, and even those who suffer from depression are not necessarily more likely to develop SAD than those without depression.

It might be “unique biology,” he poses, but likely it is a combination of things.

Less sunlight may disrupt our body’s circadian rhythms--those built-in biological patterns; SAD seems to occur more often in areas of the country where daylight is shorter and there is less sunshine during the daylight hours. Another theory is that reduced sunlight causes drops in the body’s serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter found in the brain, gut and blood platelets.

Still another theory is that a change of season can disrupt the balance of melatonin levels, which play a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) was first defined in 1984 by South African-born physician Norman Rosenthal while he was working at the National Institutes of Health.

Tips to prevent or treat seasonal depression

Here are some treatments for SAD, provided by Weggel and others at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

1.  Consider light therapy – One of the most effective treatments for SAD is light therapy. Experts recommend using a 10,000 lux, white-light, broad-spectrum lamp for 30 – 45 minutes, 4 – 6 times per week. (Before purchasing a light box, which can run up to $500, check this Columbia University website for consumer information).
2.  Exercise – Take a walk or run outdoors if possible, and in the morning when the sun is shining.
3.  Check home exterior - Cut and trim bushes and trees that block the light from the interior of your dwelling.
4.  Escape – Plan to take winter vacations in warm, sunny climates.  
5.  Avoid isolation – Despite feeling like you want to be alone, schedule dates with family and/or friends. Socialization is important.
6.  Watch your Vitamin D – Check levels and supplement if necessary.
7.  Change locations – Not everyone can do this, but traveling allied healthcare professionals are lucky. They can choose a work assignment in a warm, sunny location with more daylight hours, even in the dead of winter.
8.  Eat right – Avoid high-sugar, high-fat foods. Focus on protein and fiber. To keep temptation at bay, keep these handy: popcorn, peanut butter, whole-grain crackers and bread, oatmeal (not instant), nuts, egg whites, pre-washed veggies, fruit (fresh or canned with no-sugar added), cottage cheese, and deli chicken or turkey.  
9.  Get help - If all else fails, consider counseling and antidepressants.

For more information on SAD, visit the American Psychological Association.


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