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Originally published in Seasonal Guide, January 2, 2014
Is it just the “winter blues?”
Seasonal affective disorder: what it is and how to combat it

by Jessica Brophy

There are many names for it. Cabin fever. Winter blues. Going stir crazy. Sometimes, a downturn in mood during the winter months can be a sign of a serious issue: seasonal affective disorder.

SAD is a form of depression, according to the National Institutes of Health. SAD is a “serious mood change” often brought on during the fall and winter months, when there is less natural sunlight. The disorder usually lifts during spring and summer.

According to the Maine Senior Guide website, SAD affects at least 6 percent of the population, and common symptoms include:

• Social withdrawal

• Decreased energy and concentration

• Lethargy

• Increased appetite, carbohydrate craving, which might lead to overeating and weight gain

• Lack of interest in normally pleasurable activities

• Oversleeping

It is thought that SAD is caused by changes in the circadian rhythm, which regulates the body’s internal clock. The shorter days and longer nights disrupt our sleep/wake cycles, and the increased darkness elevates the hormone melatonin, making people more prone to sleep and depression.

SAD is more common among women, between the ages of 15 and 55; in those who have a close relative with SAD; and those who live in areas far from the equator—such as Maine, according to Tricounty Maine’s website.

What can be done

The American Psychiatric Association recommends exercise, counseling, light therapy and antidepressants.

For people with mild symptoms, the APA suggests trying to increase outdoor time in the sun to an hour per day. Try a new activity, such as snow shoeing or skiing, as a way to encourage outdoor exercise in winter.

The NIH also recommends getting enough sleep—but not too much, as SAD often encourages oversleeping—and eating healthy foods. Avoiding alcohol is also recommended.

Light therapy, according to the APA, is a common prescription. It is thought to help reset the circadian clock. During light- or phototherapy, patients sit facing a “light box” with a bank of fluorescent bulbs of up to 10,000 lux total intensity for a half hour session during the winter months, preferably in the morning hours. The eyes are kept open, but not directed toward the light itself.

According to the Mayo Clinic website, antidepressants are most effective at treating SAD if treatment begins before the season changes.