Outside, overcast skies hide the afternoon sun. Summer’s vibrant green and the kaleidoscopic colors of fall have long vanished, leaving only fallen leaves to sweep across the cold, barren ground. Winter in the south may be relatively short, but its colder and shorter days can still bring on the winter blues.
Seasonal depression, otherwise known as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), strikes up to 6% of the U.S. population and usually occurs the same time each year. Hormones, genes, age, body temperature, and overall mental state all play a role in SAD with symptoms including depression, anxiety, loss of energy, hopelessness, social withdrawal, oversleeping, the inability to concentrate, appetite changes, weight gain, and the feeling of heaviness in arms and/or legs. As reported by the Mayo Clinic, SAD can affect children, teens, men and women, with more teens being affected than children and women being four times more likely to experience SAD than men.
Dr. J. Michael Nanney of Primary Care Associates, a division of Rush Healthcare Systems, explained that there are two common types of Seasonal Affective Disorder, the fall onset and the summer onset, with fall being more common.
“[Symptoms of SAD] are a little bit different than we usually experience with depression,” said Nanney. For example, during SAD episodes, people tend to sleep more and gain weight. “Also, [SAD sufferers] are more sensitive to rejection during that particular time.” Nanney added that although the cause of the winter blues is unknown, decreased amounts of natural light during the winter months might certainly be a contributing factor.
Light affects the body’s circadian rhythm (24-hour cycle internal body clock), which also controls how much melatonin the body produces. Levels of melatonin usually begin rising in mid to late evening, remain high through most of the night, and begin dropping in the early morning hours. Winter’s shorter days can cause the body to produce melatonin earlier or later in the day, which can trigger symptoms of SAD. With age, natural melatonin levels slowly drop and some older adults actually produce little or no melatonin. Therefore, light therapy (phototherapy) consisting of a special fluorescent lamp that simulates sunlight can be beneficial. When this therapy works, depression usually improves within 3 to 4 weeks.
In addition, changes in the brain’s serotonin levels can alter a person’s mood. While it’s perfectly normal to feel down on some days, a prolonged period of depression that has you abstaining from normal activities should be taken seriously. Psychotherapy and medication may be necessary to help you through this period.
Some children who seem to have a poor attitude may actually be struggling with SAD. Since other medical problems, like mononucleosis, hypothyroidism and hypoglycemia, have similar symptoms, parents should seek professional medical guidance for a careful evaluation of their child. Open discussions about SAD will help children understand the reasons for their mental and physical changes.
“Taking a walk outside will help, as well as increasing light in your home,” said Nanney. “Set timers on your lights so that when you wake-up, the lights are already on. Purchasing your own light for therapy can also be helpful,” Nanney explained. “Costs run from $200 to $500, with light intensity varying between 2,500 to 10,000 watts. Light therapy, as prescribed by a physician, can require 30 minutes to two hours a day.”
Currently, there is no medical test for SAD, so a doctor depends on the patient to be upfront about symptoms and how long they have persisted. Some exams and tests may be required to rule out other medical disorders. While symptoms often improve with the change of seasons, SAD can develop into long-term depression. If you repeatedly experience seasonal depression, seek medical counsel to learn the best steps for prevention.
To determine if you are experiencing SAD, ask yourself these questions:
“As with all mood disorders, [symptoms of SAD] are not character problems,” said Nanney. “They are chemical problems. People shouldn’t feel guilty about seeking help and doing something about it.”