Winter Blues / Seasonal Affective Disorder

What do the winter blues and SAD feel like?

  • Significant, lasting, downturn of mood
  • Apathy; loss of feelings
  • Irritability
  • Less energy
  • Fatigue
  • Boredom
  • Overeating; weight gain
  • Cravings for carbohydrates
  • Sleeping too much; difficulty waking up or staying awake
  • Less interest in being around other people
  • Less interest in activities one used to like

How are the winter blues different from clinical depression?

  • The winter blues are a subclinical (or mild) version of SAD
  • SAD is a clinical depression that occurs during the winter months
  • It dissipates during the spring and summer months
  • To be diagnosed as having SAD, rather than a first occurrence of depression, one must have a pattern of recurring depression during the winter months

How common is it?

  • Between 10-20% of Americans may suffer from mild symptoms associated with the winter blues
  • Seasonal affective disorder (or SAD) may affect 5% of the population
  • About 1% of people in Florida get SAD; about 10% of people in New Hampshire get SAD

Why do we get the winter blues?

  • SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance brought on by the shortening of daylight hours and a lack of sunlight in winter
  • Your mood is partly influenced by sunlight, melatonin, serotonin, and vitamin D (cholecalciferol)
    • Melatonin (sleep hormone) decreases when it is light
    • Serotonin (hormone associated with wakefulness and elevated mood) increases when it is light
    • Vitamin D helps the body maintain ↑ levels of serotonin during the winter 
    • Light stimulates the production of cholecalciferol, which the body eventually transforms into vitamin D

What are the risk factors?

  • Limited light exposure
  • Younger people and women
  • Distance from the equator
  • Predispositions to clinical depression
  • January and February – the most difficult months
  • Feeling let down after the holidays

How do I prevent the winter blues?

  • Expose yourself to light
  • Keep a regular routine/schedule
  • Have a regular pattern of sleep; get enough sleep
  • Exercise regularly
  • Do fun things
  • Eat in a healthy way; avoid overeating

How do I increase my exposure to light?

  • Expose yourself to the sun during the winter
  • Do an outdoor activity or ritual daily
  • Take a long walk outside
  • Arrange your indoor environment so that you are exposed to a window during the day; exercise near a window or outside
  • Take breaks outside
  • Expose yourself to more sun during the summer
  • This may help you build up a store of cholecalciferol that lasts through the fall
  • The amount of serotonin you have in the winter may be affected by your exposure to light the previous summer
  • Remember to use sunscreen and avoid peak hours
  • Use brighter full spectrum (also known as broad spectrum) light bulbs in your home/office

What do I do if I think I might have the winter blues?

  • Consult a health professional
    • Symptoms of SAD can be confused with other medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism or viral infections like mononucleosis
    • Evaluation by a medical professional is crucial
  • Light therapy (phototherapy)
    • Exposure to very bright light (usually from a special fluorescent lamp) for 30 minutes each day during the winter months
    • Dawn simulation with an incandescent light on a timer in your bedroom
  • Psychotherapy
  • Antidepressants
  • A combination of the above

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Web Resources

  • Seasonal Affective Disorder, What It Is and How To Overcome It by Dr. Norman Rosenthal.
  • Don't be Sad - Fight the Winter Blues Your Guide to Conquering Seasonal Affective Disorder by Celeste  Peters. 
  • SAD Information Packet – The Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms.