For some people, the shorter days of fall and winter actually have them feeling the winter blues. And science indicates there are people who suffer from the winter blues and, sometimes, a more-serious medical condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
According to the Mayo Clinic, SAD typically starts in the fall and continues into the winter months.
The National Institutes of Health reported that what is known as the winter blues is a less-serious general condition, fairly common, mild and usually clears up on its own in a short amount of time.
SAD, however, is a well-defined medical condition the NIH has studied and researched for the last 30 years.
Dr. Matthew Rudorfer, a mental health expert at the NIH, said the winter blues are usually linked to something specific, such as the stressful holidays. Rudorfer reported that SAD is related to the shortening daylight hours, follows a regular pattern, appears each year around the same time and interferes with daily functioning.
Webmd.com reported that SAD is typically diagnosed after at least two consecutive years of SAD symptoms occurring.
SAD is more common in the colder regions of the country and is a form of depression that can lead to a gloomy outlook on life, irritability, a feeling of hopelessness, feeling unworthy, having little energy, oversleeping or being tired all day. People with SAD tend to withdraw from family and friends and the joys of life.
SAD can also lead to weight gain exceeding the normal five to six pounds people tend to gain through the holiday season.
The Mayo Clinic and NIH report that the reduced amount of sunlight caused by shorter days may disrupt the body’s biological clock. Reduced sunlight also affects serotonin levels. Serotonin is a brain chemical that affects moods. A drop in serotonin levels can trigger depression.
Villanova University and the Mayo Clinic say there are certain factors that increase the risk of SAD.
Women are more prone to being diagnosed with SAD than men, but men with SAD have more-severe symptoms. Younger people have a higher risk of winter SAD. Relatives of people with SAD are more likely to have SAD or another form of depression. People who suffer from depression or bipolar disorder have an increased risk for SAD. Living in the North, farther away from the equator, might increase one’s risk.
In the early 1980s researchers for the NIH first recognized the link between shortened daylight and SAD and pioneered the use of light therapy to treat the illness.
According to the NIH, light therapy has become the standard method of treating SAD. During light therapy, patients sit in front of a light box. The light is much brighter than the average indoor lighting and is meant to duplicate the brightness of the sun.
The NIH reports that 70 percent of people with SAD are relieved of their symptoms using light therapy.
Antidepressants are often used to treat SAD as well.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy, is another method used to treat SAD.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that CBT is a form of treatment that focuses on examining the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviors and exploring patterns of thought that lead to self-destructive actions and beliefs.
If you think you suffer from the winter blues or SAD, seek professional help immediately.
The Mayo Clinic suggests that in addition to professional treatment, you take steps in reducing the impact of SAD.
Make your home sunnier and brighter by opening curtains and blinds to let in more. Trim back tree branches that block sunlight and, if possible, sit closer to windows while at home or in the office.
During the height of a sunny day, go outside. Make it a routine to take a daily walk or eat lunch at a nearby park or simply bask in the sun while seated on a park bench. Take in the sunlight as often as possible.
Exercise and physical activity relieve stress and help reduce the symptoms of SAD. Along with exercise, a clean, healthy diet is recommended as well.
Certain herbal supplements have been known to reduce the symptoms of SAD and depression. These include St. John’s Wort, omega-3 fatty acids and melatonin.
Mind-body therapies that might relieve depression include acupuncture, yoga, massage therapy and meditation.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the months of January and February, the two months after the holiday frenzy, seem to be the worst for people with SAD.
Webmd.com, suggests that taking a week’s vacation to someplace warm and sunny, like Florida — where only 1 percent of residents report having SAD — just might help. Maybe this holiday season, you can treat yourself to a Caribbean Island vacation to stave off the winter blues.