As the days get shorter during the winter months, many people suffer from what they call the “winter blues.”
Often, these feelings are severe enough to be diagnosed as a type of seasonal depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Walter Smitson, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati (UC), says that SAD, first named in the early 1980s, could be caused by a reduction in sunlight that affects our internal “biological clocks.”
“During the winter, increased darkness can cause overproduction of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep,” says Dr. Smitson. “Too much melatonin has been linked to symptoms of depression.”
Dr. Smitson, director of the Central Clinic, says that younger people and women are at the highest risk for developing SAD. But, he adds, there are some things you can do to prevent or alleviate symptoms.
Recognize the symptoms
Symptoms of SAD, says Dr. Smitson, are like those of depression, but tend to occur only during the winter. They include excessive eating, oversleeping, loss of interest, less energy and irritability.
Get plenty of light
Phototherapy, or light therapy, has shown some promise in treating SAD, says Dr. Smitson.
“If you are diagnosed with SAD, your treatment may be as simple as sitting under a light box for a few minutes each day,” he says. “SAD sufferers should take every opportunity to walk in the winter sunlight.”
Discuss your symptoms with your physician
Fortunately for those with seasonal affective disorder, there is an end in sight.
“Symptoms usually diminish as the seasons change, but it’s still important to discuss SAD with your physician or a mental-health professional,” says Dr. Smitson. “Depression, even seasonal depression, can affect your health. Don’t ignore symptoms, especially if they don’t ease up as the days get longer in the spring.”
The National Mental Health Association estimates that 10 million people in the United States suffer from SAD. Another 25 million suffer from a milder form of “winter blues.”
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