Are you experiencing the winter blues - sleeping more than usual, feeling lethargic, and craving carbohydrates? You might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), according to Dr. Nicholas Yphantides. SAD is a form of depression that affects people during the same season each year, usually at the onset of winter. In such cases, a person gets depressed in late fall or early winter but feels better when spring arrives. Learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of SAD is the first step in getting help.
Symptoms and Causes
Between four and six percent of people in the United States suffer from SAD, while another 10 to 20 percent may experience some of the disorder's symptoms. SAD is more common the further from the equator, where winter days are short and there is less exposure to daylight.
Doctors believe that a lack of sunlight upsets a person's biological internal clock or circadian rhythms, such as the sleep-wake cycle.
"This cycle disruption may cause a drop in a brain chemical called serotonin, which affects mood," notes Yphantides.
The change in seasons also causes an increase of the hormone melatonin, which can affect both sleep patterns and mood.
People with SAD typically start having symptoms in September or October and feel better around April or May. They may experience:
• Increased appetite and cravings for carbohydrates.
• Feeling sad, grumpy, moody, or anxious.
• Difficulty concentrating or handling more complex tasks.
• Feeling overwhelmed by routine activities or responsibilities.
• Losing interest in usual activities and perhaps feeling hopeless.
• Feeling drowsy, with low energy and initiative during the day.
• Oversleeping, or struggling to fall or stay asleep at night.
If you have several of these symptoms and suspect you are experiencing SAD, consult your physician or healthcare provider.
Diagnosis and Treatments
"It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between depression that is not seasonal and SAD, because many of the symptoms are the same," says Yphantides.
To diagnose SAD, your doctor will want to know if you have been depressed during the same season and have gotten better when the seasons changed for at least two years in a row. He or she will also ask if you have common symptoms that occur with SAD, such as being very hungry (especially craving carbohydrates), gaining weight, and sleeping more than usual. Your doctor will also inquire whether a close relative (a parent, brother, or sister) has been diagnosed with SAD.
If you're feeling down this winter, give these tips a try:
1. Lighten things up. Open blinds. Turn on lights. Sit by the window.
2. Move. Being active during the daytime, especially first thing in the morning, may help you have more energy and feel less depressed.
3. Eat wisely. Limit caffeine, which suppresses serotonin. Eat "good" carbohydrates to maintain your energy - beans, veggies, and fruit.
4. Head outside. Exposure to natural light will help you feel better. Take a walk or sit on a bench in the sunlight.
5. Get up and go! Take a vacation in a spot closer to the equator.