The Knowledge Center

Our Knowledge Center Blog provides valuable insight into the world of psychiatry and psychology.

Winter Depression

My favorite season is winter. My wife calls me “a bear with furniture,” and like a bear, in winter the cold weather and shorter days give me the opportunity to slow down, pull my energy back into myself and prepare for spring. However, many men and women in winter have low energy, become irritable and gain weight because they eat too much, especially foods that contain a lot of carbohydrates. They don’t exercise as much, lose interest in getting out of the house and being with other people, sleep more and just stay “tired” all the time. In reality, all of these symptoms may be signs of depression. Some people get depressed because they lose their job or don’t like their job, get a divorce or there is a death in the family. There may also be a genetic basis for depression because it seems like everyone in the family is depressed. But some people get depressed every winter even without experiencing a stressor that would make any of us feel depressed and without a family history of depression.

Winter depression is sometimes called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and affects between 5 to 10 percent of the U.S. population. Another 10 to 20 percent of the population may suffer from more mild winter “blues.” SAD is more common in women, between the ages of 20-50, and is thought to be caused by the shorter hours of daylight the winter brings during its colder months of the year January and February.  Although the specific cause of this disorder isn’t known, some biological factors such as the circadian rhythm, which helps regulate the body’s internal clock, may be disrupted with the decreased amount sunlight in fall and winter. Also, the decreased amount of light may also cause a biochemical imbalance of the neurotransmitters serotonin and the sleep-related hormone melatonin in the brain.

As a psychiatrist I usually treat winter depression with antidepressant medication and individual or group psychotherapy, but I also use “light box therapy.”  Light box therapy uses a very strong source of broad-spectrum light for a half-hour or hour each day during the winter months to replace the missing hours of daylight. Research has shown that some people with SAD who are exposed to bright light treatments experience relief from depression because the light therapy mimics outdoor light and is thought to cause a biochemical change in the brain that improves mood.

Tips for Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

Besides using anti-depressant medication, individual group and light box therapies there are other very effective ways to deal with SAD and other types of depression.

Exercise – Physical exercise has huge health benefits. It’s one of the most powerful ways to prevent and treat depression. One of the first things I ask my patients is to become more active, “just start moving.” For example, instead of eating lunch at your desk, take a midday walk to get as much sun as possible (there’s that light thing again) and to breathe in fresh air.

Work space-try to locate where you sit in your office so that you are next to a window and are exposed to sunlight during the workday.  One of the things I’ve always put high on my priorities is to always have a window in my own office. Open the window for fresh air even in winter.

Sugar-Cut back on the amount of sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in your diet. They have been shown to cause increased swings in mood and directly impact your brain function. All of us have experienced a “sugar rush” and “sugar crash” as your body uses up the sugar in your blood.

Foods-Eat protein and complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables at every meal. Less sunlight means less Vitamin D and you can get Vitamin D from milk, most whole grain cereals and fish, especially cod, herring and sardines.

Greyhound Therapy- If it’s in your budget, get out of town and go someplace sunny. Just a change of scenery by itself can help you feel better.

Seek Professional Help-if the depression gets so bad that you find it difficult to get through the day, it’s important that you talk with someone about your struggles and depression. You are not alone and we can get through this working together.

Remember, if you have SAD, unless you live in Alaska or Greenland, the sun will shine, the air will get warm and you will feel better and more alive as the depression melts away with the snow.

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