In the dark, rainy days of winter, many people start to feel blue and emotionally down - symptoms of depression that they don't experience during other times of the year when there is more natural sunlight. This is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is a fancy name for winter depression (or winter-onset depression) that affects up to 20% of the population.
SAD is thought to be due to a lack of exposure to sunlight during the winter and is more common in northern regions, such as the Pacific Northwest, where the winters are longer and darker. It is more common in women than men. Symptoms of SAD are generally mild to moderate, tend to come back from year to year and usually come and go at about the same time each year.
Not everyone has the same symptoms. Common symptoms may include sadness, empty or anxious feelings, an increased appetite with weight gain (weight loss is more common with other forms of depression), increased sleep and daytime sleepiness, less energy, difficulty concentrating, loss of interest in work or other activities, slow, sluggish, lethargic movement, social withdrawal, unhappiness, and irritability.
Even though it is dark and often rainy in the Pacific Northwest, don't let the weather keep you from playing, exercising, and working outside. Exercise itself is an effective treatment for mild depression so it is particularly important to keep this up during the winter. Even if it is drizzly and cold, it is important to get outside and stay active. Running, cycling, power walking, and hiking are all possible straight through our northwest winters, in addition, of course to skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing.
SAD is caused by your body’s reaction to the lack of sunlight. Ultraviolet light therapy can be effective and is usually the first-line treatment intervention. This is accomplished using a special lamp (light box) or a light visor that you wear on your head like a cap both of which use very bright florescent light that mimics light from the sun.
Generally, light therapy takes about 30 minutes each day throughout the late fall and winter. Individuals sit a couple of feet away from the light box or wear the light visor for the needed amount of time. If light therapy helps you, you can continue using it until enough natural sunlight is available in the springtime. Stopping light therapy too soon can allow the symptoms to come back.
Tanning beds should not be used to treat SAD as the light sources are high in ultraviolet rays which we know are harmful to both your eyes and skin. Medications such as antidepressants and behavior therapy can also be helpful.
A vacation to somewhere sunny during January or February can also be helpful, but we find that people who have true seasonal affective disorder require more ongoing treatment than a short vacation can provide. Nevertheless, we sure wish we could write you a prescription for a sunny vacation!
As always, your GreenField physician is your best resource should you be feeling a bit of the common Pacific Northwest winter blues.