Who doesn’t feel tired and out of sorts at times during the holidays? Late nights, a long to-do list and extra food and drink can do that to most anyone.
For some people, however, these feelings don’t end with the changing of the calendar year–and they aren’t just suffering withdrawal from too much of Great Aunt Phoebe’s fruitcake. They may be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (also appropriately known as SAD).
SAD can perhaps best be described as depression triggered by the winter season (though some people can experience a similar phenomenon during the summer). Symptoms include feelings of depression, anxiety and fatigue along with the urge to oversleep and/or overeat. It tends to peak in December, January and February though it can strike any time from September to April in the northern hemisphere.
Seasonal Affective Disorder affects approximately half a million people a year with even more experiencing the milder “winter blues.” Seventy-five percent of sufferers are women and it commonly begins between ages 18 and 30. Risk factors include a family history and/or personal experience with depression or bipolar disorder as well as location (it’s very uncommon in people who live within 30 degrees latitude of the equator for example).
There are a number of potential treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder.
- Bright light therapy (phototherapy): The dark increases the body’s production of melatonin which may lead to depression symptoms. Using a bright light can mimic sunlight and help reduce the amount of melatonin created. Typically it’s a specially designed fluorescent light box (10,000 lux) that is used for about 30 minutes a day while doing other activities.
- Vitamin D supplementation: Our bodies create vitamin D when we spend time in the sun (without sunscreen) but often this naturally-occurring exposure is less during the colder, darker winter months. Some studies have shown improvement in people who have taken supplements while others have shown no change.
- Negative air ionization: Several studies have found people who used a high-density air ionizer (2,700,000 ions per cubic centimeter) for half an hour daily for several weeks showed an improvement in SAD symptoms. (Note those who used the low-density air ionizer (10,000 ions per cubic centimeter) did not experience as much relief.)
Additional Self-Care Therapies
- Time outdoors: For mild cases taking a walk or otherwise spending time outside (or even inside near a window) can be helpful.
Professional Care Therapies
- For anyone not experiencing an improvement in symptoms with the above methods, it’s important to see a medical professional.
Side effects from most of these treatments are minimal. Light therapy may cause eye strain and/or headaches and anyone taking medications that make them sensitive to light should consult with their healthcare provider before using a light box.
Excessive intake of vitamin D (more than 4000 units per day) can be dangerous and result in headaches, fatigue, weakness, nausea, vomiting and more.
Most importantly, keep tabs on symptoms. If they do not improve or resolve, seek help.
A more serious version of the “winter blues,” Seasonal Affective Disorder most often strikes during the dark months of winter when melatonin production increases and can cause symptoms of depression and anxiety. Fortunately there are a variety of treatment options available ranging from light boxes, vitamin D supplements and negative air ionization therapy to antidepressants when necessary.
- Mental Health America: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
- PubMed Health: Seasonal Affective Disorder