By Nina Radcliff, MD
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). In other words, the winter
blues. Learn how to combat depression and not be down this
time of the year.
For nearly 25 million Americans, the spring is like the beginning of a beautiful play where the curtain lifts up to reveal birds singing and flowers in bloom. It’s a happy, joyous, invigorating time. However, come fall and winter, as the days get shorter and the sun retreats earlier and earlier, the curtain falls marking the end of the long day’s play. Almost like a tragedy, we are often left feeling sad and forlorn. I admit, the description is ripe with allegory, for dramatic effect. I could have simply stated that the “winter blues,” or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a form of depression that is triggered by decreases in sunlight and goes away when the sunlight returns. But what fun is that?
Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: About Seasonal Affective Disorder and Keeping it at Bay
What’s the mechanism behind SAD? Decreases in sunlight can lead a depressed mood by:
· Sending our body’s biological or internal clock into a tizzy
· Affecting melatonin levels which can decrease quality and quantity of sleep
· Decreasing brain chemicals that affect our mood, namely serotonin
How are the “winter blues” diagnosed? Unlike diabetes, hypertension, or a myriad of other illnesses, it is diagnosed by symptoms, as opposed to findings from a physical examination or laboratory/radiographic testing. Symptoms of SAD can include sadness, irritability, depressed mood, decreased energy levels, difficulty concentrating or sleeping, and increased appetite that leads to weight gain. If you believe that you or a loved one may be suffering from SAD, speak with your doctor.
Who is at risk for SAD?
· Women experience SAD four times more often than men
· The average age is 23 years old, but people of all ages can develop the winter blues
· People who live further away from the equator
Can staying active help decrease SAD? Absolutely! In addition to lowering our risk for obesity, heart disease, and dementia, getting our heart pounding can increase our endorphins. Endorphins are our body’s “feel good” chemical that is released when we eat foods we like or see someone we love. Staying active is a win-win-win situation!
How can we get more light? Don’t let the cold weather scare us away from spending time outdoors, when possible. We may even be able to elevate our mood by sitting indoors near the window and catching a few rays.
Additionally, some studies have shown that artificial light therapy can significantly improve SAD symptoms after just 1-2 weeks. The science behind it points to rebalancing our internal clocks, melatonin and serotonin levels. Speak with your physician to see if this may be right for you or your loved one.
What about getting social? As tempting as it is to curl up in front of the fireplace or get under the covers, maintaining social bonds is a great way to put some cheer into our lives. Let’s remind ourselves that although it may seem like a lot of effort to get showered, dressed, and into the car in the cold weather, once we are with loved ones, they will warm our hearts. And if we do not feel like going out to a restaurant, consider having a dinner party at home with warm food and drinks, such as delectable soups or hot chocolate.
Does eating healthy help fight off SAD? In addition to keeping inches off of our waistlines, healthy eating can also help fight off a depressed mood, inability to concentrate, and fatigue. Foods that are rich in vitamins and nutrients can boost our body’s “feel good” chemicals. So the next time we are at the grocery store, pick up items rich in omega-3 fatty acids (nuts, eggs, and fish) along with colorful vegetables.
And if we suffer from the winter blues, we may find ourselves craving for carbohydrates. This can lead to unwanted weight gain as well as worsen a depressed mood because of subsequent drops in blood sugar levels following a spike. But we need to remember that although the blues will fade away in the spring, we will have to put in the work to burn off those extra pounds.
If it goes away on its own when spring arrives, should we avoid prescription medications? In some situations, your physician may decide that medications are appropriate to fend off SAD. Of note, it can take 4-6 weeks to see the effects of many anti-depressant medications.
Instead of allowing the curtains to fall when the sunlight decreases, let’s demand an encore, or multiple encores, until spring rolls around. Let’s keep the curtains lifted and allow the show to go on. We do not have walk down a long dark corridor looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. Let’s light up our path, now.