Do You Have the Winter Blues?

Do you feel like you're tired all the time? Eating more than you should? Are you a little testy? If so, you could be one of 25 million Americans with seasonal affective disorder.

But don't lose hope just yet. There are some strategies to get you through the dark days of winter.

Doctor Davis Bresnahan is studying the condition with a team of researchers across the country.

Dr. Bresnahan says it's a type of depression that develops as the daylight hours get shorter. He says winter's shorter, often gloomy days impact cycles in the body called Circadian Rhythms.

They are bodily functions that cycle every 24 hours. They include temperature, the body's need for sleep and activity, and the production of certain hormones like melatonin.

To get it going, Bresnahan recommends light exposure.

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Seasonal Affective Disorder

  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is an extreme case of the “winter blues” that is relieved during the spring and summer months.

  • Although SAD isn’t totally understood, it is a real illness with sometimes severe symptoms.

  • For people with SAD, their bodies have a difficult time adjusting to the shortage of sunlight in the winter months.

  • Symptoms are most pronounced in January and February, when the days are shortest.

Symptoms

  • Some of the symptoms of depression occur regularly during the fall and winter months those include:
    • Changes in sleeping and eating habits
    • Persistent sad, anxious or "empty" mood
    • Loss of pleasure in activities once enjoyed

  • Depression subsides in the spring and summer months.

  • Seasonal episodes substantially outnumber non-seasonal depression episodes.

  • The individual craves sugary or starchy foods.

Who Gets SAD?

  • Young people and women are at the highest risk for the disorder, but it can affect anyone.

  • An estimated 25 percent of the population suffers from mild winter SAD, and about five percent suffer from a more severe form of the disorder.

What Causes SAD

  • Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, has been linked to SAD.

  • Melatonin is believed to cause symptoms of depression and is produced at increased levels in the dark, so when the days are shorter and darker, the production of this hormone increases.

Treatment

  • For mild symptoms, spending time outdoors during the day or arranging homes and workplaces to receive more sunlight may be helpful.

  • Regular exercise—particularly if done outdoors—may help because exercise can relieve depression.

  • For more severe symptoms, a light treatment called phototherapy might help. Phototherapy has been shown to suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin.

  • If phototherapy doesn’t work, an antidepressant drug may help reduce or eliminate SAD symptoms, but there may be unwanted side effects to consider.

In all cases, people who think they may have SAD should discuss their symptoms with a doctor or mental health professional. Contact your local Mental Health Association, community health center or our source:

The National Mental Health Association Web site (http://www.nmha.org/infoctr/factsheets/27.cfm)


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