There are winter blues and there are Winter Blues. Each year, the season of snowmen and gift-giving drags down millions of Americans, sapping them of energy and cheer. Millions more find themselves not only blue, but genuinely depressed. For those with Seasonal Affective Disorder, winter kicks off an annual cycle of unusually negative thoughts, heightened carb cravings, unwanted weight gain, and an overwhelming need to sleep.
“As we get closer and closer to December 21, the number of hours of daylight is shrinking,” says Janis Anderson, a psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “This process of shrinking daylight seems to be the trigger.”
A lack of sunlight means our brains produce less serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects our mood, says William Weggel, a psychiatrist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wis. Conversely, Weggel and other experts believe that the added hours of darkness may also contribute by cueing the production of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone.
It’s no surprise that those who live farthest from the equator—where sunlight is limited—are disproportionately affected. In a sample of Alaska residents, for example, 9.2 percent reported having SAD compared to just 1.6 percent of Floridians, according to research cited by psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal, a leading authority on the condition, in his book Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder.
But there’s more to it than sunlight. Women are more susceptible to all types of depression. In fact, women ages 20 to 40 are twice as likely as their male counterparts to be diagnosed with SAD, likely owing to a hormonal link. But men aren’t immune—especially if depression runs in their family.
If SAD symptoms and risk factors are sounding all too familiar, your first line of defense is to get out and move. Jogging, biking, walking the dog: You name it. Exercise can help, says Anderson, “And if you really want to do a double whammy on your winter depression, go work out in the morning, if your schedule permits.” Morning sunlight will most effectively boost your mood, says Anderson.
Be conscious of your eating habits, too, adds Rosenthal. While sweets and starches are the very foods SAD sufferers tend to crave, he says they’ll only give a quick fix and may ultimately lead to weight gain—not the optimal way to curb depression. Says Rosenthal: “Gravitate toward proteins and low-glycemic foods, instead,” i.e., foods that don’t send blood sugar levels soaring.
But if you don’t find relief in exercise, morning sunshine, and a healthy diet—and if you can’t migrate to Hawaii until spring when symptoms typically subside—it’s likely time to get professional help. “If it’s really interfering with your ability to go to work, to have a good time with family, and be productive, then it’s always worth starting off by talking to your doctor,” says Anderson.
A health professional can administer tests to ensure it’s not another condition masquerading as SAD. She can also get a sense of your family’s history of depression and gauge if your symptoms reoccur every season, or if you may just be having a rough couple of months.
If it is indeed SAD, there are treatments. “At the end of the day, this is depression,” says Anderson. “Forms of treatment that work for depression often work for SAD.” Doctors may suggest cognitive behavioral therapy to help patients recognize and curb irrationally negative thoughts, or prescribe antidepressants.
But the most popular treatment route is light therapy, which can be used either on its own or in addition to one or both of the above options. Light-therapy boxes emit artificial light to help compensate for a lack of sunlight. Small, portable boxes are often equipped with LED lights, while larger boxes are often outfitted with florescent lights. Whichever type you choose, simply sit in front of it for 30 to 45 minutes per day. No need to stare into the light, so long as “it’s illuminating the area around the eyes,” says Anderson.
According to the Mayo Clinic, light therapy is generally safe, and consumers can buy the boxes online without permission from a doctor. Light boxes are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, however, so Anderson suggests doing your homework before investing, reading the instructions, and making sure there’s a return policy. “I suggest that people look for devices that have been used by researchers at major universities or by Dr. Rosenthal in studies,” she says, “Because we all have to study the safety and effectiveness of what we use.”
If buying a light box on your own seems daunting, Weggel suggests checking in with a doctor first. “It never hurts to see someone who is familiar with the treatment and get guidance along the way.”