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SAD but True

Jan 07, 2019Health Focus

Do you start to slow down when the long, chilly winter season approaches? Do you find it harder to get up on dark mornings? Do you gain weight even though you try to watch your diet around the holidays?

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. More than 10 million Americans suffer some form of winter-related depression, according to Psychology Today, and six percent of that population are affected by the most dramatic “winter blues:” seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Out of Rhythm 

For centuries, scientists and observers of human nature have noted that winter’s shorter days and longer nights have a psychological effect on people, particularly those living in northern climates, exactly like Idaho. But this phenomenon wasn’t officially acknowledged until the 1980s, when psychiatrist Dr. Norman Rosenthal fully described SAD and pioneered the use of light in its treatment.

Our bodies shift their circadian rhythm, or 24-hour biological clock, to match the seasons. However, since our daily schedules remain fixed, or our lives fall out of sync with our biological clocks during the winter months. As a result, many people start exhibiting symptoms of mild depression—excessive sleeping, lethargy, anxiety, mood changes, loss of libido, social withdrawal, overeating and pronounced weight gain, and depression.

The prime months associated with winter seasonal depression are December, January, and February. However, symptoms can start as early as September and last into April. SAD can set in at any age, but the average onset is usually between the ages of 18 and 30. And, according to American Family Physician, SAD is four times more common in women than in men. Because the symptoms of SAD recur year after year around the same time, it takes about three years of monitoring to achieve a diagnosis. 

The Melatonin Connection

In recent years, scientists have linked SAD to melatonin—a hormone produced by the tiny pineal gland at the base of the brain. The amount of melatonin released into our blood stream is regulated by the amount of light that passes through the eyes—the less light, the more melatonin. When darkness falls, melatonin lowers our body temperature and makes us start to feel sleepy. Similarly, when the days shorten in winter, less light is available, and melatonin is released into the system for longer stretches of time.

People experiencing milder “winter blues” can often chase away their symptoms by taking in more natural light. However, more severe cases of SAD often require daily phototherapy—a treatment that involves sitting in front of a light box that gives off high doses of concentrated, bright light, which is up to 20 times brighter than normal indoor lighting.

 Most studies have shown that about 75 percent of individuals experiencing SAD show improvement when using light therapy. However, if it’s not enough, doctors may combine the treatment with psychotherapy and non-sedative selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) including sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), and fluoxetine (Prozac).

Make the Season Bright

You can start beating back the bleakness of wintertime by spending as much time as you can outdoors (or gazing out your window), exercising on a regular basis, and watching your diet. However, if winter blue continue to drag you down, contact one of Bingham Memorial’s mental health professionals for immediate medical assistance. There’s no reason to hibernate until spring.

Suzanne Godfrey, LCPC, NCC, board-certified counselor, has a background in psychology and marital, couple, and family counseling. She has helped clients of all ages struggling with a range of issues, including: familial and marital discord; grief and loss; substance abuse; sexual dysfunction; serious and persistent mental illness; sexual and domestic abuse; codependency; anger management; personality disorders; and, acute and post-traumatic stress disorders.

If you think you or a loved one are experiencing the debilitating effects of SAD, schedule a consultation with Suzanne by calling (208) 785-3800. She can help you to determine your best course of action. She sees patients in Idaho Falls and Blackfoot.

Referrals are not required and she is always welcoming new patients.

Our content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.