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When the winter blues could be depression - and what to do about it

January 31, 2020
When the winter blues could be depression - and what to do about it

It’s common to get down in the dumps in winter when the sky is overcast or it’s too cold to go outside.

However, when those feelings go beyond the winter glooms, it could be seasonal affective disorder, commonly known as SAD. SAD is depression triggered by the changing seasons, and it usually begins in fall or winter.

Here are some essential facts to know about recognizing and treating SAD:

SAD is relatively common

While between 4 and 6 percent of people in the United States suffer from SAD, there is a milder form that up to 20 percent of people experience, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Those with the milder form are less likely to be diagnosed, leading them to deal with the side effects without support.

The cause is unknown

While the trigger for SAD is unknown, the theory is that it has to do with hormonal changes throughout the year, related to daylight.

“Less sunlight during fall and winter leads to the brain making less serotonin, a chemical linked to brain pathways that regulate mood,” according to WebMD. “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.”

This theory is backed by the fact that the disorder is less common in countries that have a lot of year-round sunshine.

Some people have a higher risk

Certain demographics are more likely to develop SAD, according to Diane Pipes LISW-S, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) Manager for TriHealth Corporate Health.

“Women tend to have SAD more often than men,” she said. “But when men experience SAD, it’s much more severe.”

Young adults are at the highest risk, with people 18 to 30 years of age most affected, Pipes said.

Additionally, “geographical location matters,” she said. “Those people that live farther south or farther north of the equator are most affected.”

SAD affects quality of life

SAD is more than a gloomy feeling. Rather, it significantly impacts a person’s life.

“It affects folks with their basic daily activities,” Pipes said. “Everything from hobbies to your desire to see family and friends to taking care of yourself, too.”

These are a few symptoms, according to WebMD:

  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Increased desire to be alone
  • Increased appetite
  • Weight gain

Although less common, SAD during summer can result in decreased appetite, sleep troubles, and weight loss.

Treatment is available

The good news is, treatment can improve symptoms. A doctor can prescribe an anti-depressant, or you can speak with a therapist who can help by using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques and suggesting simple lifestyle changes. You can find a therapist through your EAP or through your insurance network.

“You’ll see the most effective results if you combine treatments,” Pipes said. “Go to a therapist, eat better, walk a little bit more, etc. Like any of the forms of depression, there’s no need to suffer. You can very easily get some help and feel better.”

Light therapy offers relief

Light therapy, a common treatment for SAD, works by using bright light to stimulate the hypothalamus, which can “restore circadian rhythm and thus banish seasonal symptoms,” Dr. Michael Miller writes for Harvard Medical School.

People can use a special light box for about 30 minutes per day, usually when they wake up. The light is about 100 times brighter than standard indoor lighting and has been found to be “at least as effective as antidepressant medications for treating seasonal affective disorder,” Miller writes.

If you experience any SAD symptoms or have questions, talk to your doctor, or turn to the experts at TriHealth for help.