White winters can cause blue moods

Seasonal affective disorder, also called SAD, is a kind of depression that follows the seasons. The most common type of SAD is called “winter depression.” It usually begins in late fall or early winter and goes away by spring or early summer. The condition is thought to be related to changes in the amount of daylight we get.

About 4 to 6 percent of people may have winter depression. Another 10 to 20 percent may have mild SAD. It is four times more common in women than in men. Although some children and teenagers get SAD, it usually doesn’t start in people younger than age 20. Your chance of getting it decreases as you get older. SAD is also more common the farther north you go. For example, it’s seven times more common in Washington State than in Florida.

Your symptoms are clues to the diagnosis. Not everyone with SAD has the same symptoms, but common symptoms of winter depression include the following: a change in appetite, especially a craving for sweet or starchy foods; weight gain; a heavy feeling in the arms or legs; a drop in energy level; fatigue; a tendency to oversleep; difficulty concentrating; irritability; increased sensitivity to social rejection; or avoidance of social situations – not wanting to go out.

SAD may also include some of the symptoms that are present in other kinds of depression, such as feelings of guilt, a loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, or physical problems such as headaches and stomachaches. Symptoms of SAD keep coming back and tend to come and go at about the same time every year. The changes in mood are not necessarily related to obvious seasonal problems, like being regularly unemployed during the winter.

Winter depression is probably caused by a lack of sunlight. So, light therapy is one way to treat the condition. If your doctor suggests that you try light therapy, you will use a special light box or a light visor that you wear on your head like a cap. You will sit in front of the light box or wear the light visor each day. Generally, light therapy takes about 30 minutes a day in the fall and winter, when you’re most likely to be depressed. If light therapy helps, you’ll keep using it until more sun is available in the springtime. Stopping light therapy too soon can make the symptoms come back.

When used properly, light therapy seems to have few side effects. Side effects include eye strain, headache, fatigue, irritability and inability to sleep. Insomnia can occur if light therapy is used too late in the day. Tanning beds shouldn’t be used to treat SAD. The light sources in tanning beds are high in ultraviolet (UV) rays, which harm your eyes and your skin.
If you have SAD, your doctor may also want you to try a medication treatment or behavioral therapy. Finally, since SAD worsens due to lack of sunlight, get outside and be active on winter’s sunny days. Exercise, both physical and mental, is one of the best treatments for any type of depression.

The content in this column is for informational purposes only. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.

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