The impending break from your 9-to-5 and holiday gatherings with your in-laws are not the only reasons you are feeling a little under the weather. These are just some of the symptoms correlated with the winter blues. If you are feeling down more than usual, you are not alone.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, between 10 and 20 percent of the population experiences some form of seasonal affective disorder, and women are three to four times more likely than men to experience the condition. “People can experience significant mood changes with the changing of the seasons due to different amounts of natural light exposure,” said Rob McGavock, a counselor with the Boone Hospital Employee Assistance Program.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, was first formally described by Norman Rosenthal through the National Institute of Mental Health in 1984 after he recognized his own mood changing with the leaves on the trees. “People at risk for seasonal depression are often those with a history of previous major depressive episodes,” said Tahir Rahman, University of Missouri assistant professor of clinical psychiatry. “People with clinical depression often have recurrent episodes. Season depression is sometimes an added component or trigger for them.” Some scientists believe the changes in behavior are related to a serotonin insufficiency or problems with melatonin regulation.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that communicates information throughout the body and helps regulate body functions and mood. An imbalance can cause mood issues, McGavock said. Melatonin, meanwhile, is a hormone that helps control sleep and wake cycles. Natural light affects how much melatonin is produced by the body. The timing for melatonin production can become out of sync during seasonal changes because of altered amounts of light exposure, McGavock said.
The amount of light you are exposed to is dependent on your location. For example, those living in northern areas of the country tend to experience SAD more because they are farther away from the equator and thus are exposed to fewer hours of light. SAD occurs in the fall and winter months, but moods might also swing during spring and summer when natural light exposure increases. “People realize that something is happening but are not sure what it is. There are a lot of people with SAD with differing levels of severity,” McGavock said.
Fall and winter SAD symptoms include:
Sleeping too much, difficulty waking
Low energy level
Arms and legs feel heavier
Crying or tearing up more easily
Overeating and weight gain
Decreased ability to concentrate
Loss of normal interests and lack of pleasure
Lower sex drive
Suicidal thoughts in extreme cases
People might experience one or a combination of symptoms triggered by the changing light that persists throughout the season, indicating the possibility of seasonal affective disorder. If these occur, McGavock said a trip to the doctor might be in order. “There are effective treatments for SAD, so there is no need to suffer with it. It is important to know that SAD is a medical issue and not a character defect,” McGavock said.
Treatment options include light therapy, which consists of exposure to daylight using a full-spectrum light for a period of time, use of a dawn light simulator that simulates a sunrise during waking times and antidepressant medication. Another possible new treatment is ear canal light therapy. It has been discovered that tissue in the ear canal is highly sensitive to light. A person wears a special headset that shines light into the ears for short durations, McGavock said.