Health Break | Published December 26, 2005 | Written by David Doll, psychiatric counselor, behavioral health, Mount Nittany Medical Center

Winter Fosters SAD Season

The winter holidays, with crisp wind chills and mounting snowfalls, bring to most of us a renewal of energy. But, to some people this season signals a descent into depression. They suffer from season affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that affects 11 million Americans. Also called winter depression, it usually begins in late fall or early winter and lasts until late spring.

The cause of SAD is unknown. One theory is that it is related to changes in the amount of daylight. As the days shorten in the fall, the body produces more melatonin, a hormone produced in the pineal gland. Most people are not noticeably affected by this increase, but those who are sensitive to it experience the symptoms associated with SAD.

Not everyone with this disorder suffers the same symptoms, but common ones include:

  • Feelings of hopelessness and sadness

  • A change in appetite, especially a craving for sweets or starchy foods

  • Weight gain

  • A drop in energy level

  • A tendency to oversleep

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Irritability

  • Avoidance of social situations

  • Difficulty concentrating and processing information, especially in the afternoon

Winter depression was first diagnosed in 1984 and since it is thought to be caused by a reaction to the lack of sunlight, the therapy most recommended involves light. The individual either sits in front of a light box or wears a light visor with full spectrum bulbs for 30 minutes to three hours during the early morning. Light therapy has been shown to be effective, helping about 50 to 60 percent of the patients. Recent studies have explored other treatments combined with the traditional light approach. Sometimes antidepressants are used effectively.

Researchers in the treatment of SAD could lead to a revolution in architectural lights. Home and office light could be optimally designed to encourage regulation of the biological clock. This would help not only sufferers of winter depression but also jetlagged travelers and people who suffer from sleep disorders.

If you think you have symptoms of SAD, see your doctor for an examination to make sure these symptoms are not caused by another type of depression or medical illness. Diagnosing SAD depends on whether youve experienced depression and other signs of SAD for at least two consecutive years during the same season, and these periods of depression have been followed by seasons when you were not depressed. The doctorwill also look for other explanations for the change in your mood or behavior and eliminate those as possible causes.

If you are diagnosed with SAD, there are some things you can do in addition to light and other therapies.

  • Try to spend some amount of time outside every day, even when it is cloudy.

  • Exercise at least 30 minutes a day, three times a week.

  • Eat a well-balanced diet including sufficient amounts of vitamins and minerals as recommended by the Food and Drug Administration.

  • Seek professional counseling, if needed, during the winter months.

Perhaps the most important of these self-help ideas is to stay involved in activities with your friends and family. They can be a great support in your efforts to lessen the symptoms of SAD.

David A. Doll is a psychiatric counselor at Mount Nittany Medical Center.