Everything You Need to Know About the Winter Blues


Most people can recognize and have experienced some of the common symptoms of depression, including feeling sad, tired and irritable; having difficulty sleeping; increased or decreased appetite; low energy; and difficulty concentrating. In more severe cases, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness; significant weight changes; and thoughts of suicide are layered on top of those problems.

There are many different types of depression. Most people have heard an assortment of terms including “major depression,” “clinical depression,” “manic depression” and “seasonal affective disorder.” These titles can be confusing for the average person.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is what most people refer to as the “winter blues.” Simply put, SAD just means that the depressive symptoms like the ones listed above regularly appear or intensify during the winter months and disappear or diminish with spring and summer. The number of symptoms and level of intensity can vary from person to person, but what most distinguishes SAD is the change in symptoms with the seasons.

The closer a person lives to the equator, the less likely they are to develop SAD. A person might be without any symptoms while living in Florida or California and then begin to experience depressive symptoms after a move to somewhere less temperate.

Distance from the equator is only one of the known risk factors for SAD symptoms. One in ten people will develop depressive symptoms with the SAD pattern in their lifetime. Women are four times more likely than men to have this problem. SAD rates are also high in people who work night and evening shifts, in those who sleep during the day, and in people who work for extended periods without sun exposure like miners or submarine crews. People with a history of alcohol abuse and mood disorders are also at greater risk, as are people who have close family members with a history of these issues.

Researchers have also found that people suffering from SAD are more often lethargic and depressed. Mild to moderate anxiety, feelings of lack of control, hopelessness and tenuous self-esteem are also common. Those with SAD are also often more sensitive to pain.

There is an additional interesting difference between classic depressive symptoms and SAD symptoms when it comes to appetite. SAD is commonly associated with increased hunger, weight gain, and increased cravings for carbohydrates, especially sweets. Classic depressive symptoms, on the other hand, are often associated with decreased hunger and appetite.

Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health have strong evidence linking SAD to light exposure. This has led to the development of light therapy or phototherapy, which has been very successful in treating SAD. Up to 80% of people suffering from SAD find many of their symptoms alleviated after as little as four days of exposure to full-spectrum light for only one to two hours a day. Full-spectrum bulbs can be found in most hardware stores. Be sure that the strength is a minimum of 2,500 lux.

Light therapy treatment has proven effective in reducing appetite, weight gain and food cravings, as well as in elevating mood and improving sleep habits. Unfortunately, most people using light therapy experience a return of symptoms within days of stopping treatment. That makes consistency the best strategy for maximum symptom relief. Also make a point to be outside or exposed to natural sunlight when it’s available during the winter months. Keep your shades open on sunny winter days and get outside for a walk or sit by a brightly lit window whenever you can.

Always speak with a qualified health-care professional about whatever symptoms you might be experiencing. And let the sun–or full-spectrum bulbs–shine in!