High Contrast

Medicine or Malarkey: Are the Winter Blues Just a Myth?

With limited daylight, chilly weather and dreary days, winter can be tough for everyone. After the holiday cheer passes, many people find themselves feeling down and blue. Does all that dull weather just make us think we’re dull on the inside too, or is there more to it?

In fact, the “winter blues” aren’t just malarkey or a figment of our imagination. They are a well documented clinical phenomenon known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

The Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) diagnosis has been a source of controversy, with some doctors dismissing symptoms as simple winter blues. However, most experts agree that winter leads to an uptick in depressive symptoms across a wide swath of the population. Some people have never experienced depression at other times of year but find themselves particularly affected during the winter months. Common symptoms of SAD include:

  • Loss of interest in activities that you typically enjoy
  • Feeling depressed or down for most of the day, nearly every day
  • Low energy
  • Changes in sleep duration or quality
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Increase or decrease in appetite or weight
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Hypersensitivity to feelings of rejection
  • Feeling “leaden” or dragged down
  • Difficulty getting along with others
  • Thinking about harming yourself

Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Scientists are actively studying what causes SAD and why some people are particularly susceptible. The human body is strongly controlled by circadian rhythms — a fancy name for an internal clock. Getting low levels of sunlight during the winter months may disrupt this internal clock and trigger depressive symptoms.

Several brain chemicals seem to change during the late fall and winter months. For example, a reduction in sunlight can cause a dramatic drop in levels of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is involved in mood regulation. Additionally, changing seasons may affect the body’s production of melatonin. This chemical is essential for proper sleep-wake patterns, which heavily tie into depressed mood.

Finally, SAD may be exacerbated by behavioral changes that people experience during the winter months. Because of limited daylight and cold weather, many people stay inside more. Failing to engage in enjoyable activities, limited exercise and decreased social interaction can lead to depressed mood.

Effective Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder

The good news is that SAD can be treated. One popular treatment is known as “light therapy”. Simply spending time in a special light box that mimics the natural outdoor light often leads to improved mood within a few weeks. Purchasing a light box for home use throughout the winter is a good way to combat symptoms of SAD.

Traditional treatments for depression have also been demonstrated to help. Antidepressant medications and therapy are both effective ways to overcome SAD.

If you’ve found yourself feeling blue this winter, do not feel alone. Somewhere between 10-20 percent of people experience mild SAD during this time of year. Seek medical advice to boost your mood and help you regain a sense of balance. And remember — spring is coming soon!