Employee & Community Health

Winter got you down? You may be SAD

1/12/2017 by Dr. David Katzelnick

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At this time of year, with daylight and sunshine in short supply, you may feel more like hibernating than heading outdoors to play in the snow. 

If you do, you're not alone. Those of us who live in northern states are no strangers to the "winter blues," which is a mild version of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Studies have shown that nearly 10 percent of people in New Hampshire have been diagnosed with SAD, but it affects only about 1 percent in Florida, the Sunshine State. 

SAD tends to be more common in women, young adults and those who work night shifts, and it's been found to run in families. Some symptoms include: 

  • Sleeping more, but not sleeping well
  • Feeling dragged out, low-energy and unmotivated
  • Not being able to focus
  • Craving junk or comfort food
  • Gaining weight
  • Avoiding social activities

While many of us experience these symptoms to some degree, when they become disabling or make it difficult for you to function, you should contact your care team. If you already suffer from depression, SAD can make your symptoms worse. 

While there's no exact cause of SAD, researchers have found it may be linked to: 

  • Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body's internal clock and lead to feelings of depression. 
  • Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression. 
  • Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body's level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood. 

Whether it's the winter blues or SAD, here are some things you can try to lift your mood: 

  1. Open your shades to let in the sunlight.
  2. Head outdoors on sunny days.
  3. Include physical activity in your daily routine. 
  4. Try light therapy. 

During light therapy, you sit or work near a box that gives off bright light mimicking natural outdoor light. The boxes are relatively inexpensive and can be bought without a prescription. Some insurance companies cover the cost. They're small, thin and lightweight and can be carried when you travel. 

Choose a light-therapy box that emits 10,000 lux and gives off low ultraviolet (UV) light. Set it at an angle about an arm's length away. Start light therapy for 20-30 minutes in the fall and continue using it until the days lengthen, and you begin to feel better. Studies have shown that it works best if used in the morning. Many patients find light therapy to be as effective as anti-depressants, without the side effects. 

Learn more about SAD and how you can brighten your winter mood. 

David Katzelnick, MD, is professor of Psychiatry and co-chair of Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Integrated Behavioral Health (IBH) at Mayo Clinic. His major clinical and research interests are in mood and anxiety disorders, psychopharmacology, and diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders in primary care.