Coping With the Wintertime Blues

Northwestern Medicine
Health and Wellness February 06, 2013
Woman holding her forehead in painWinter is in full force! With shorter days and less exposure to  sunlight, everyone feels less energetic and more people are vulnerable to depression.  Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or winter depression,  is a mood disorder  related to seasonal variations of light. It affects between 10 to 20 percent of Americans, primarily younger adults and women. Although the exact cause of SAD is unknown, experts believe changes in melatonin and serotonin levels, or a disruption in the body’s internal clock may be to blame. Northwestern Medicine psychiatrist Katherine L. Wisner, MD, MS, says there are ways to beat the blues caused by SAD and suggests those who experience symptoms visit their doctor before symptoms become severe. 

People who suffer from SAD experience the following symptoms to the extent that they are not able to function normally:  

  • Feeling depressed, fatigued and  lethargic
  • Difficulty waking up in the morning and a tendency to sleep more, although the increased sleep time does not allow them to feel rested
  • An afternoon slump in mood and energy
  • Increased appetite, especially for foods full of carbohydrates, leading to weight gain
  • Loss of interest or enjoyment in activities once enjoyed or with others
  • Trouble concentrating

Women with SAD often report premenstrual worsening of these symptoms.  The primary  treatment for SAD is morning bright light therapy, which has several decades of research to support its efficacy.   Light therapy works by providing the brain a large stimulus of light , which causes biochemical changes in the  brain that reverses the  mood disturbance.

Other treatments for SAD include psychotherapy and activating antidepressant medications.  Wisner suggests that people  who believe they suffer from SAD be evaluated by a mental health professional to rule out other causes of the symptoms, such as low thyroid hormone levels and anemia,  and to discuss treatment options. 

For the majority of people who have mild symptoms that do not interfere with functioning, there are small things that can be done to keep  mood balanced during this time of year:

  • Sleep well – Make sure you wake up and go to bed at the time same every day, including weekends. Doing so will keep your body’s internal clock in sync.
  • Let the light in – Expose yourself to as much sunlight as possible by opening your blinds at home and making sure that your work space has natural or bright light.
  • Control your cravings – Eat a balanced diet while limiting the amount of carbohydrates you are eating. Carbohydrates can provide a short-term energy boost but leave you feeling worse later in the day.
  • Embrace an exercise routine – Exercise is not only good for your physical health, but also helps relieve the stress and anxiety that can increase the symptoms of SAD.  A daily half-hour walk outside is an excellent plan to improve light exposure and get your muscles working.  Yoga and Pilates type classes are a good way to relax and exercise at the same time.
  • Learn to manage your stress – Take time to relax each day and try to manage your stress so it doesn’t lead to depression and overeating. Make it a point to stay connected to people who are important to you, as they will help you remain calm and happy.

According to Wisner, many people ignore the symptoms of SAD. What is important to know is that there are options and treatments available to help if you find yourself having difficulty functioning.

For more information about SAD or to make an appointment, call 312.926.0779.

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