Winter Blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder?
For some people, winter is a delightful season full of family time, snow days and cuddling up with a cup of hot chocolate. For others, winter signals a bewildering time of sadness, also known as the "winter blues."
What Is the "Winter Blues?"
The "winter blues" only comes during a portion of the year, usually October through April. Experts believe the shorter days of winter and the lack of sunlight can cause your body to produce too much melatonin (making you sleepier) and not enough serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate your mood.
When It's More Severe...
The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that 20 percent of Americans have the mild form of winter blues, while 4 to 6 percent of Americans suffer from a more severe version of the condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Symptoms of SAD can be debilitating. They include:
- Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, anxiety or irritability
- Social withdrawal
- Loss of interest in usual activities
- Food cravings and weight gain
- Extreme difficulty waking up in the mornings
Seasonal affective disorder is most commonly diagnosed in women of childbearing age. The condition is less common as people age. Women are four times more likely to have SAD than men. Besides gender and age, other risk factors for SAD include family history (if your other family members have had seasonal affective disorder or other depressive disorders) and geography, meaning the further north or south of the equator, the higher your risk of developing SAD.
How to Improve Your Mood
- Exercise - Even brief, 10-minute walks can make a difference, especially when taken around noon when the sun is brightest.
- Stay social - Spend quality time with family and friends to keep your mind engaged.
- Eat a healthy diet high in Vitamin D - Try to boost your diet with Vitamin D-enriched foods, such as salmon, beef, egg yolks, fortified juices, milk and cereals.
- Try artificial light boxes or dawn simulators - Sitting in front of an artificial light box for 30 minutes per day first thing in the morning is a common prescribed treatment. Dawn simulators are like alarm clocks, but instead of startling noises and music, they wake you with beams that gradually get lighter.
- Vacation to a sunny place - One or two weeks away in a warm, sunny location in January or February can boost your mood.
- Try aromatherapy in a warm bath - Essential oils like lavender have been known to help relax people with depressive disorders.
If the self-help tips listed above don't improve your condition, it's important to talk with your primary care provider. He or she may discuss the use of antidepressants or refer you to a behavioral health specialist.
Above all, don't lose hope! The winter blues and SAD are treatable, and with the proper help, you can get back to enjoying your normal activities in as little as a few weeks.