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Do you have the winter blues or could it be SAD?

Posted on by Eric F. Hussar, MD


It’s dark when you leave for work and dark when you get home. At this time of year, lots of people are down in the dumps. It’s hard to be cheery when days are short, skies dreary, and cold weather makes you want to hibernate. Are you experiencing the “winter blues” or could it be seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

Maybe you just have a mild case of depression that you can get through on your own. But if you’re struggling to cope, you may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression that affects between 4 percent and 6 percent of the population.

In northern latitudes, the change of seasons is cause for many people to feel worse than their usual self. Typically, this due to decreased exposure to daylight during the fall and winter months and subsides in the spring.

If you know your options and act early, you’ll have a better chance of fending off winter depression.

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

Symptoms of SAD include lethargy (feeling tired), loss of interest in activities, interpersonal problems, irritability, inability to concentrate, changes in sleeping patterns or appetite, and a craving for carbohydrates.

Natural ways to fight SAD

  • Exercise. Keep up your routine and it will help keep up your spirits. Exercise stimulates the production of antidepressant compounds. And exercising in the morning also can help you fall asleep earlier and sleep better. Even if it’s cold outside, bundle up and go out anyway. The fresh air will benefit you as well as the sunlight (see below).
  • Diet. Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Resist the temptation to reach for comfort foods high in sugar or carbohydrates. You may get a quick high—but it comes with the price of a later crash, and persistent intake of these will likely worsen your mood.
  • Light therapy. Maximize your exposure to the sun by exercising outdoors (especially in the morning); using light therapy (phototherapy), which involves daily sessions of sitting close to a special light that delivers more intense light than normal indoor light; and practicing “dawn stimulation,” programming a light to turn on in your bedroom early.

If SAD affects you, you can attack the disorder in several ways—combine exercise, diet, and sun exposure with maintaining your social contacts and hobbies. Many people just want to withdraw and hibernate when they feel this way, but that usually just makes their symptoms worse.

Try to maintain a positive outlook. Meditation and inspirational reading can refresh your mind. Look for ways you can be involved in volunteering or community service. Helping others has a great side benefit of helping yourself as well.

Don’t hesitate to get help

And finally, get help from your family doctor or a psychiatrist if your SAD is significant. There are antidepressants that can be prescribed if self-help measures don’t work. Many people also benefit from the hormone melatonin, which helps to reset your body clock.

 | Susquehanna Family Medicine

Eric F. Hussar, MD, is a family medicine doctor with LG Health Susquehanna Family Medicine. Dr. Hussar’s areas of expertise include chronic disease management, obstetrics, pediatrics, and suboxone therapy. Education: Medical School—Temple University; Residency—Lancaster General Hospital.

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