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Are you SAD? Winter Blues in Detail

By Samantha E. Williams, student, SUNY Empire State College; assistant editor, The Student Connection

March 5, 2015

little girl in the snowWith winter in full swing and most of the U.S. experiencing rough weather, some of us may be feeling a little blue. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is mentioned frequently whenever someone claims to feel a little down during the winter, but how common is SAD? What are the symptoms and the treatment options?

The percentage of the population with SAD varies from one source to another. In his article, “Nutritional Intervention for Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder,” Lawrence A. Palinkas suggests that up to 2.9 percent of adults in Canada and the United States meet the clinical definition of SAD. In contrast, Harvard Women’s Health Watch’s article “Is It Seasonal Depression or Just the Winter Blues?” estimate 5-10 percent of people have SAD, but about 25 percent “get the winter doldrums—milder changes in mood, alertness, energy and appetite.”

What symptoms qualify someone for a SAD diagnosis? A. Gupta, et al. explain in “Role of Serotonin in Seasonal Affective Disorder” that SAD is characterized by a pattern: onset in the winter, remission in the spring, or onset in the summer, remission in the fall. Gupta suggests that a patient should have at least two consecutive winters with the symptoms, including depression, weight gain, appetite and hunger changes, decreased energy, increased sleep, irritability and many more. The Harvard Women’s Health Watch article mentioned above takes the diagnosis a step further, asserting that the difference between winter blues and SAD is that one is easily treatable at home and the other needs professional treatment. 

So, what can you do to combat your winter symptoms? The journal Alternative and Complementary Therapies brings together several health professionals in their Clinical Round Up, “How Do You Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder in Your Practice?” to answer that question. Dr. Kim Jobst explains there are many different strategies an individual can take, including increasing physical activity, changing diet and getting screened to find out what nutrients may be lacking. Because of decreased sunlight, Dr. Jobst explains that vitamins D3, all B vitamins, magnesium and antioxidants are key during winter months. The biggest suggestion? “Nothing beats natural sunlight.” Bundle up and get outside!

If you are depressed, have some of the above symptoms (and maybe other symptoms as well), you may have SAD. Additionally, if you are female, you are four times more prone to SAD than men. What do you do if you cannot fight the blues yourself? According to Gupta, Palinkas and Harvard Women’s Health Watch, serotonin is important in your fight against SAD. Serotonin elevates your mood, which in turn, helps you fight depression and other mental health symptoms.

Light therapy is a common and popular clinical treatment for SAD, exposing patients to brighter indoor light with the intent of increasing serotonin levels. Palinkas suggests that only half of SAD patients experience remission with light therapy and need additional treatment. Other treatment options include a visit to your therapist and carbohydrate-rich diets. Recent studies suggest that SAD patients demonstrate depleted thyroid hormones, which results in hypothyroidism. Trials with patients subjected to Antarctica’s winters and given low doses of thyroxine suggest depressive symptoms can be controlled.

Whether you are SAD or you have a case of the winter blues, try getting outside. Bundle up and take a quick walk, snowshoe, ski or ice skate. Being active, eating healthy and staying positive may be the key to fighting off winter sadness, just as they fight off sadness and illness year round.

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