Many people often get a case of the “winter blues” as the days shorten and fall gives in to winter, but for some, a more serious form of this winter depression can occur. Some people suffer from symptoms of depression during the winter months, but these symptoms subside during the spring and summer months. This could be a sign of something called Seasonal Affective Disorder(SAD). SAD is a mood disorder associated with depression episodes and is related to seasonal variations of light.
SAD was first noted before 1845, but it was not officially named until the early 1980s. We’ve seen sunlight affect the seasonal activities of animals (reproductive cycles and hibernation), and SAD may be an effect of this seasonal light variation in humans. As the seasons change, and length of daylight hours varies, there is a shift in our biological internal clocks or circadian rhythm. This can cause our biological clocks to be out of sync with our daily schedules, and can have dramatic effects on our overall wellness. The most difficult months for SAD sufferers in the Northern Hemisphere are January and February, and younger people and women tend to be at higher risk.
Symptoms of SAD can include regularly occurring depressive symptoms (mainly excessive eating and sleeping and weight gain) during the fall and winter, full remission from the depression in the spring and summer, symptoms occurring in the past two years with no non-seasonal depressive episodes, decrease in libido, lethargy, irritability, tension and anxiety, and a craving for sugary and/or starchy foods.
Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, has been linked to SAD. The hormone, which can cause symptoms of depression, is produced at increased levels in the dark. Therefore, when the days are shorter and darker the production increases, our brains are “tricked” into thinking it’s night (even hours before we go to sleep), and we essentially go into “hibernation” mode.
Treatments for SAD include phototherapy, or light therapy. This has been shown to suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin. There have been no research findings to definitively link light therapy with an antidepressant effect, but many people respond favorably to it. Most often, a “light box” or bank of white fluorescent lights on a metal reflector and shield with a plastic screen. For mild symptoms, spending time outdoors during the day or arranging the home and workplace to receive more sunlight may be helpful. One study found that an hour-long walk in winter sunlight was as effective as two and a half hours under artificial light.
If light therapy doesn’t work, an antidepressant drug may prove effective in reducing or even eliminating symptoms of SAD, however there may be unwanted side effects to consider in this option. As always, consult your doctor and discuss options with them for treating any type of depression or wellness disorder.