Winter Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder

Posted in Uncategorized on February 22, 2018

how to beat the winter blues

What are the Winter Blues?

The winter blues are well known to people that live in areas that experience a period of cold weather and especially those that live at higher latitudes. The winter months are generally darker and cold in these areas, which severely limits outdoor activity and any opportunities to soak up some sunshine; especially for those that work 9 to 5.

In addition to the cold, a lot of holidays fall in the winter months, further draining already sapped energies. These feelings of sadness and winter depression can be quite serious for some people, where it's not just a case of the blues, but debilitating bouts of depression too. This type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD) seems to be largely related to a lack of sunshine.

SAD afflicts approximately 6% of Americans, about half a million people. Feeling sad or mildly depressed without the more serious symptoms, is what's referred to as the winter blues; this less severe version of SAD affects about 14% of Americans.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is recognized as a common disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It's described as a recurrent major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern as it occurs at a specific time of the year. Symptoms typically start in September or October and can last until April, peaking in the winter months.

winter depression light

Sunlight In the winter is not as strong as at other times in the year, this may lead to people becoming depressed and developing the winter blues. Photograph by cleò.

A diagnosis of this disorder is generally made after experiencing symptoms for two consecutive seasons. In most cases, the first occurrence of SAD happens between the ages of 18 and 30.

The disorder affects women and young adults disproportionately; three out of four people with SAD are women. In addition, there appears to be a genetic predisposition to developing SAD.

Another determining factor of who's more at risk of developing seasonal affective disorder is where you live. Lack of sufficient exposure to sunlight is thought to be a major underlying cause of SAD, so location plays an important role. People that live farthest away from the equator have a higher chance of developing the disorder because of shortened daylight hours during the winter months. The number of cases in certain regions reflects this. For example, if you live in Florida, then your chances of developing SAD is less than 2%, whereas for people living in places like Seattle or anywhere near the Canadian border, this figure increases to about 10%. With regards to developing the much milder version of SAD, the cruel winter blues, the incidence in people living in these northern areas is about 30%.

Common Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (Winter Blues)

People that experience winter blues, or the more serious form known as seasonal affective disorder, can display a variety of symptoms depending on the severity of their condition. Common symptoms include:

  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Decreased energy levels
  • Overeating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Cravings for sugar and carbohydrates
  • Sleeping too much
  • Difficulty getting up in the morning
  • Apathetic feelings
  • Drowsiness
  • Feeling sad
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty focusing and concentrating
  • Disinterest in activities once enjoyed
  • Complications
how to beat the winter blues

Disturbed sleep and oversleeping may both result from SAD. Picture by Valerie Hinojosa.

Seasonal affective disorder needs to be taken seriously as it is a type of clinical depression. A combination of the above symptoms can lead the condition to worsen over time, leading to very serious problems such as poor work performance and even suicidal thoughts if left untreated. Complications of SAD can include:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Issues at school or work
  • Substance abuse
  • Other mental health disorders such as anxiety or eating disorders
  • Suicidal thoughts or behavior

Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder

The exact causes of seasonal affective disorder haven't been discovered as of yet, but it's thought to be linked to a Vitamin D deficiency and not enough sunlight. This eventually causes a disruption to the functions of the hypothalamus, which then throws off circadian rhythms. These rhythms control energy levels and the sleep/wake cycle.

When these rhythms are disrupted, it can affect levels of the hormones melatonin and serotonin. Melatonin brings about sleepiness, whilst serotonin affects mood and appetite.

Higher levels of melatonin are produced in people with SAD, resulting in lethargy, while serotonin levels decrease and this contributes to SAD winter depression.

SAD seems to be triggered by the decrease in hours of daylight during the winter months, as the days are shorter. Cold temperatures keeps people indoors longer, and even while venturing out, the daylight may be weak and this further exacerbates symptoms of the disorder.

The lack of sunlight and the vitamin D deficiency link theorises that during the winter months, dawn comes later so melatonin is still being produced when we arise, which in turn makes us feel groggy and not fully rested. In the evenings, it gets dark earlier so our bodies start producing melatonin too early and leaves us feeling exhausted and ready for bed as soon as we get home from work. Moodiness and depression are symptoms that may also be present in addition to fatigue.

Risk Factors of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Risk factors of seasonal affective disorder include being female, age, a family history, location, and preexisting mental disorders.

SAD is much more common in women than men, and research shows a genetic predisposition. SAD is also more common in people that live closer to either the North or South poles. People in their early 20s are more prone to develop SAD, as are those who also have major depression or bipolar disorder. Some research suggests that women who have depression during pregnancy could also be at risk for SAD.

Conventional and Traditional Treatments (How to beat the Winter Blues)

The preferred method of treatment for seasonal affective disorder is light therapy treatment, but cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective as well.

A seasonal affective disorder lamp combats SAD by utilizing winter depression light bulbs to provide artificial light for winter blues. This light mimics natural sunlight and studies show 60 to 80% of patients have improvement of symptoms within a week.

These light boxes can be bought without a prescription and are very easy to use. You simply look at the box as it emits light for about 30 minutes each day; preferably in the morning. In addition to winter depression light therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy may be an effective long-term treatment for SAD; as it is very beneficial for treatment of depression.

Getting as much natural sunlight as possible is very important. Spend time outdoors to increase your exposure to sunlight. A brisk 30-minute walk, even on overcast days, can help to improve symptoms.

Exercise and staying active in general will also help to fight winter blues symptoms. Physical activity releases endorphins, which help to combat depression, a main symptom of SAD. Antidepressants are helpful to some patients as they can help to correct the chemical imbalance that may bring about SAD.

Vitamin D supplements may also be used, as a deficiency of the vitamin is believed to be a cause of SAD.

natural remedies for seasonal affective disorder

Drinking vitamin D rich milk may help to overcome the winter blues. Photo by Oregon State University.

If you think you are experiencing seasonal affective disorder or may be at risk for developing it then speak to your doctor and get examined. If you're experiencing depression, feelings of hopelessness, or suicidal thoughts or behavior, then it is important to seek immediate medical attention.

Common Questions about the Winter Blues and SAD

Is seasonal depression a real thing? Yes.

Can I get SAD in the Summer? This is known as reverse seasonal affective Disorder.

How common is SAD? It affects about 10 to 20% of people who live above the tropics. It is more prevalent in women than men, and in younger adults.

What causes the winter blues? Cold weather, lack of light due to shorter day-lengths, and low vitamin D levels.

What is winter blues syndrome? / Winter Blues Meaning It is a seasonal mood disorder that occurs in the winter months.

Further Reading and References

 

https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=85&contentid=P00755

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seasonal_affective_disorder

https://www.washington.edu/counseling/resources/resources-for-students/the-winter-blues/

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