Guest column: beating the winter blues and holiday gloom

Less light during the winter months can cause Seasonal Affective Disorder.

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Less light during the winter months can cause Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Thanksgiving has passed and Christmas in on its way, followed by the expectations the new year brings. This is the time of year when we are expected to feel joyful and hopeful. Yet, many people often experience “the blues.” For those suffering with depression or just a case of the doldrums, this time of the year can seem like a lifetime.

For most, the holiday season is festive and fun, and everything is merry and bright. Yet, many people say they feel blue, sad or depressed. Some say they feel like their normal selves and their joy are shadowed by an underlying sadness that they just can’t pinpoint the reason for.

When people experience an exaggerated form of the blues during certain months for no apparent reason at all, it is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD (an appropriate acronym).

Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as winter depression, winter blues, summer depression or seasonal depression, is a mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms at the same time each year, most commonly in the winter.

The most challenging months for SAD sufferers are January and February. Of the nearly 10 million American cases, 70 to 80 percent of them are women.

The effects of SAD on a person’s life can be catastrophic, including severely disrupted education, careers and relationships. That’s why it is important to understand what causes SAD and the signs and symptoms associated with the disorder. 

Typical symptoms of SAD include depression, lack of energy, increased need for sleep, craving for starchy foods and weight gain. Symptoms usually begin in the late fall, peak in the winter and normally resolve in spring. 

The incidence of SAD intensifies with increasing latitude and suggests a connection with the degree of light exposure. Sunlight enters the brain through the eyes and the light stimulates the production of a serotonin, a neurotransmitter that supports nerve cell functions including one’s “mood.” Sunlight increases serotonin which in turn increases energy, decreases appetite and brings a sense of empowerment and engagement. Less sunlight results in lower levels of serotonin, which means less energy and motivation and a desire to eat and sleep more.

On the flip side, darkness stimulates the production of melatonin, which promotes sleep. Melatonin is produced at increased levels when a person is not exposed to light. When winter days are shorter and nights are longer, the production of this hormone increases.

Decreased light means less serotonin and more melatonin. The combination of less serotonin (which helps nerve cells cooperate) and increased amounts of melatonin (which puts a body to sleep) causes SAD.

Additionally, as seasons change, there is a shift in our “biological internal clocks” or circadian rhythm, due partly to changes in sunlight patterns and changing temperatures. This can cause our biological clocks to be out of sync with our daily schedules.

Spending time outdoors during the day or arranging home and workplaces to receive more sunlight is helpful. Outdoor light, even when the sky is overcast, produces adequate amounts of light to increase serotonin production.

When going outdoors or enjoying sunlight indoors is not possible, a light box can be beneficial. A light therapy box mimics outdoor light. Light therapy has been shown to suppress secretion of melatonin in the brain and increase serotonin production, causing a chemical change in the brain that lifts the mood and eases other symptoms of SAD.

Light boxes are designed to be safe and effective, but they are not approved or regulated by the FDA for SAD treatments. It is important to talk with healthcare provider before purchasing a light box to ensure it is the best treatment option and that you are getting the correct type of light box. For instance, some light therapy lamps are designed for skin disorders – not for SAD. Lamps used for skin disorders primarily emit ultraviolet (UV) light and could damage the eyes if used incorrectly. Light boxes used to treat SAD should filter out most or all UV light.

Daily exercise also can be useful to relieve symptoms of SAD, especially if done outdoors. Eating a balanced diet can prevent weight gain and may help one’s mood. Psychotherapy also can help relieve depression. Some individuals benefit from a combination of medication, light therapy and psychotherapy treatments.

Don’t let the holidays be blue, keep them red and green and white, keep them merry and bright. If you experience any of the symptoms of SAD, talk with a friend or family member and let them know how you feel. Be sure to get outside, eat well, drink plenty of water and surround yourself with people and things that make you feel good. If the feelings linger and increase, call your healthcare provider. Embrace the light and enjoy the season, whatever it may be.

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