"SAD" in Winter?

by | Jan. 17, 2012

A recent Gallup Poll showed Hawaii is America’s happiest state. It is also the most southern state and has the most consistent sunshine based on its latitude. This isn’t a coincidence.

Sunshine—or lack thereof—can actually affect your mood. When you can constantly enjoy the sunshine, you are more likely to be happy, but the converse is also true, which, unfortunately, means that an increased number of people feel a progressive melancholy as winter begins to seem endless and the sun becomes a rarity due to shorter days and stormier weather.  

It has been calculated that January is the most depressing month of the year. Even more specifically, this week, the third week of January, is the most depressing week of the year. The calculation is based on weather, debt, time since Christmas, time since failing our New Year’s resolutions, as well as low motivation, and that puts the most depressing day of the year at about the third Monday in January. Sounds like a great time of year for a warm southern cruise.

For many people, symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, begin to appear as the dusky season of fall encroaches upon us and then culminate during the dark winter months. These same people may feel much better as a new spring emerges and then be totally normal during the bright months of  summer, only to repeat the cycle the next year.

Symptoms of SAD may include depression, hopelessness, anxiety, loss of energy, social withdrawal, fatigue and oversleeping, loss of interest in activities, carbohydrate and sugar cravings, weight gain, and difficulty concentrating. SAD tends to be more common in women, but men may also have symptoms and often show more irritability. Regardless of gender, the situation may also be complicated by a personal or family history of depression. The condition is also frequently exacerbated by stress. There is no question that the farther you live from the equator, the more risk you have of developing SAD.

The causes are many and complex, but it appears that a reduced level of sunlight may disrupt your body’s circadian rhythm and negatively affect several important brain chemicals. Treatment includes special light therapy boxes that you can sit in front of for a period of time each morning to help restore your body’s natural circadian rhythm.

Taking a walk in the sunshine during the day also helps, as do other forms of physical fitness. I encourage my own patients to get above the inversion smog and onto the ski slopes. The winter sun reflecting off the white snow is pretty potent therapy—just protect your eyes with appropriate sunglasses.

Staying mentally active and even volunteering for a good cause has been proven to help. Medications and professional counseling are also commonly used to help control symptoms of SAD. Finally, if the winter blues are really getting you down, do what my friend Bob did and fill a prescription to “take a vacation from your problems.”

If your symptoms are really getting the best of you, see your doctor. Life is so precious and we have been given so much. Let’s focus on the multitude of blessings we have been given and allow the sunshine in to permeate the winter times of our lives.

Now, let’s get healthy!

-Dr. Boud
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