Once the dark cold winter sets in, it’s not uncommon for people start to feeling the same way inside — bleak, tired, wanting comfort food and ready to hibernate until spring. If you start to feel a little blue as the winter progresses, you are not alone.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs with diminished sunlight and not only affects mood, but also areas of the brain responsible for sleep, heart rate and blood pressure, appetite, weight regulation and sexual function.
SAD occurs in about 3% of people and more often in women, according to Linda Carpenter, MD, chief of Butler Hospital’s Mood Disorders Program and Neuromodulation Clinic.
Is it SAD?
Carpenter explains symptoms vary from one person to the next, but may include:
- An onset of symptoms related to a change in the seasons. While SAD is most commonly experienced in the fall and winter when daylight decreases, some patients will experience the reverse and the onset of a depressive episode in spring or summer.
- Diminished joy in things that were once pleasurable.
- Changes in energy and sleep patterns. Instead of experiencing depression with insomnia, people with SAD tend to have hypersomnia, or increased sleeping, with more napping during the day. “It’s almost like hibernating,” Carpenter says.
- Changes in the ability to function or think clearly.
- Changes in eating habits. “We tend to see a pattern of oversleeping and overeating,” Carpenter says, adding that people may crave carbohydrates specifically.
- A negative mood or pessimistic and hopeless thoughts.
What to Do
If you think you may be struggling with SAD, contact your doctor or mental health professional. They may prescribe a medication known to boost your serotonin level in the brain, which is thought to contribute to feelings of well-being and happiness. Additionally, “There’s a medicine that has been shown to prevent SAD before it even starts in individuals who are vulnerable,” Carpenter says.
If you prefer alternatives, your physician may suggest phototherapy, or exposure to artificial light, which has been shown to be beneficial in treating SAD. Not any light source will do, though. You need to purchase one that emits the appropriate amount of “lux,” or luminance, recommended by your physician. Newer light sources use LED technology, and may be more portable and more comfortable. A person should not start light therapy without consulting their physician or psychiatrist since it can worsen certain eye conditions. Talk therapy with a licensed therapist can also be effective.
Helping with SAD
Whether medications or light treatment alone is used, or a combination of both, anyone with SAD can benefit from making healthy lifestyle changes that can reduce symptoms, such as:
- Keeping to a regular sleep and exercise schedule.
- Eating a healthy diet.
- Pushing yourself to stay engaged in social activities with others.
You can also help a loved one with SAD by:
- Being understanding.
- Encouraging them to seek professional treatment.
- Offering to do healthy things with them, like exercising, engaging in social activities and eating healthy.
So how long does it take to feel better once spring rolls around and the days get longer? “In general, mood improvement tends to correlate with the lengthening of daylight; so, most people are feeling substantially better by the time spring is in full bloom,” says Dr. Carpenter.