You’ve heard of the “Winter Blues” – the doldrums, and is often followed by weight gain. If your mood takes a nose-dive about this time each year, you might have a common, treatable condition that comes and goes with the seasons, experts say. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, often dubbed the “winter blues,” afflicts about 10% to 20% of Americans, especially those living in Northern climets, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
SAD is a physical condition that can lead to a psychological disorder, says Angelos Halaris, chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine in Maywood, Ill. As the daylight hours shorten each day, the reduced exposure to light causes a biochemical imbalance in some people’s brains, Halaris says.
“We believe SAD is some kind of genetic residue akin to hibernation in mammals—the human equivalent,” he says.
Most people’s body clocks, or circadian rhythms, adjust to seasonal changes in light, says David Avery, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.
But those who don’t adapt are more prone to winter depression. “It’s analogous to a permanent kind of jet lag — a jet lag that lasts for months rather than a few days,” he says. “That puts a lot of stress on the body.”
People with mild to moderate SAD may notice symptoms of depression crop up in early fall. Others say in deep winter they tumble into an emotional pit. Excessive sleeping, weight gain, extreme fatigue and irritability can last through March or April, when the days start to get a little longer, Avery says.
More severe SAD sufferers may struggle through normal daily activities or become suicidal.
There are a number of effective treatments, Avery says. The most well established is light therapy – exposure to artificial sunlight to trick the body into maintaining its summer rhythms.
Take seasonal mood changes seriously since SAD can become progressively worse over the years, Halaris says.
“Be preventative. See a doctor,” he says. “We’re heading into the season, and it’s time to gear up.”
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