As the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, it’s not unusual to experience a general feeling of sadness. But when feelings of depression, irritability and lethargy become the norm, you may have a form of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), often referred to as the winter blues.
“There’s a difference between the winter blues and just feeling down because it’s cold and dark outside,” says Jacqueline Hobbs, MD, family practitioner at Nebraska Medicine – Bellevue. “People with SAD will start feeling depressed most of the day nearly every day as soon as winter approaches.”
Other symptoms include lack of energy, feeling hopeless or worthless, problems sleeping, losing interest in activities you normally enjoy, difficulty concentrating and even thoughts of death or suicide.
“These feelings are not normal and not something you should just try to live with,” says Dr. Hobbs. “There are many things that can be done to help and treatment is successful for most people.”
SAD may be caused by a combination of factors including, a disruption of your biological clock (circadian rhythm) from the reduced level of sunlight in the fall and winter months; a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood and may be triggered by reduced sunlight; and a disruption in the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which affects mood and sleep patterns.
SAD is more prevalent in women, younger people, people with a family history of SAD or other form of depression, people who have had clinical depression and those who live far from the equator.
To combat the onset of the winter blues, Dr. Hobbs suggests the following:
Get adequate sleep.
Take daily walks or get other forms of aerobic exercise during daylight hours. This will give you more sun exposure and increase endorphins to lift your spirits and help relieve stress and anxiety.
Use light therapy, also called phototherapy, for 30 minutes in the morning. This will mimic outdoor light, and for many, may change brain chemicals that affect mood.
If symptoms of depression linger, antidepressant medications as well as psychotherapy may also help. Your doctor may recommend starting on an antidepressant before your symptoms begin each year.
Psychotherapy or counseling can help you identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors, help you learn to manage stress and develop healthy ways to cope with SAD. If you prefer not to take medications, consider alternative therapy options such as yoga, meditation or massage therapy.
“There’s no harm in trying these and they are helpful for some people,” notes Dr. Hobbs. If you decide to try herbs and supplements like melatonin and St. John’s wort, talk to your doctor first to make sure they will not interfere with other medications or medical problems, says Dr. Hobbs.
“Most people with SAD will get it every year come fall and winter,” says Dr. Hobbs.
“But if we can start treatment early, we may be able to prevent it from becoming severe.”
DID YOU KNOW?
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, folate and vitamin B12 may boost your mood by playing a role in serotonin production. Foods rich in these nutrients include fortified wholegrain cereal, lentils, oatmeal, beets, wild salmon, low-fat dairy and eggs.
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