How to combat winter blues
By Devin Young, AACA Youth Leadership Coordinator
Winter blues. Cabin fever. Most people know or assume that depression is more common during the cold months. This is known as seasonal affective disorder.
SAD is a specific form of depression that only occurs during a certain time of the year. In rare cases, this can actually be the summertime, but for most people, it occurs in the winter months. Similar to regular depression, it tends to arise during the teenage years and early adulthood, especially for women. Those living in areas with short winter days or drastic changes in the amount of sunlight between seasons tend to be predisposed to developing the disorder. Although major depressive disorder and SAD share most symptoms, there are key differences between them. While for regular depression eating and sleeping tends to decrease, a person with SAD tends to eat and sleep more than usual. In particular, individuals with SAD crave carbohydrates. Doctors use these differences as well as the consistent occurrence only during certain times of the year to distinguish SAD from major depression.
Six percent of the US population, primarily in northern climates, is affected by SAD in its most marked form. Another 14 percent of the adult US population suffers from a lesser form of seasonal mood changes, known as winter blues.1 Of course, seasonality affects people all over the world. The prevalence of SAD in Oslo, Norway, was reported as 14 percent in contrast to 4.7 percent in New York City.
The cause of SAD is unclear. Being cooped up indoors does affect people, but that’s not the full picture. Though scientists are not completely certain, they speculate that in combination with genes and age, the cause of SAD involves the relative lack of exposure to natural light during these months.
What is it about sunlight that makes its absence a source of depression? First of all, it can upset your biological clock. The reduced level of sunlight can throw off circadian rhythms, thus disrupting the sleep-wake cycle. This cycle helps to alert the body whether one is asleep or awake, and disturbing it can decrease the restorative value of sleep. All of this combines to promote depressed mood. Similarly, this seasonal change can result in lower melatonin levels, the natural sleep hormone that the body produces. Low levels of this can lead to feelings of depression.
Next, it is well-known that depression is associated with low levels of serotonin. Accordingly, reduced exposure to sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, thus leading to depression. Lastly, depression is also associated with low levels of Vitamin D, of which sunlight is chock full of.
These symptoms can be treated with vitamin supplements or medications. However, another treatment called light therapy also exists. There are two forms of light therapy. One type, called bright light treatment, involves sitting in front of a bright light for about 30 minutes per day. One usually does this in the morning to produce the same effect as dawn.
The other kind, called dawn simulation, constitutes having a dim light begin in the morning while one is still asleep and then gradually brighten, so as to simulate the sunrise. There are some side effects associated with light therapy, especially eye strain, which can lead to headaches. Less commonly, instances of ensuing mania have been reported.
In addition to treatment, eating a healthy diet, exercising and getting enough sleep also helps manage the symptoms of SAD. It is very important to treat SAD right away because it can eventually turn into a major depressive disorder. In addition, it can increase suicidal tendencies. Clearly, it is not to be taken lightly.
However, with proper treatment, the prognosis for SAD is relatively optimistic as most people experience relief from symptoms as quickly as one week after treatment is begun. It looks like sunlight is good for the soul!
This post is also available in: Chinese