Seasonal affective disorder: How to spot and treat the ‘winter blues’

Image of woman who is feeling sad and looking through her window at winter weather

If the shorter, darker days of winter seem to trigger a change in your mood and energy levels, you’re not alone.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression prompted by a change in seasons — mainly fall and winter — when we experience less daylight and sunshine. It affects as many as 5 percent of people in the United States each year.

Fortunately, there are easy steps you can take to make the dark days brighter, says Anita Davis, LCPC, a therapist at UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial Hospital.

Call 708-915-6411 to learn more about Ingalls Behavioral Health Department

She explains more about SAD, as well as lifestyle changes and clinical interventions which can help.

What are the key symptoms of SAD?

  • Low moods
  • Low motivation to get things done
  • Fatigue
  • Sleeping more
  • Eating more
  • Feeling of helplessness, hopelessness and low self-worth
  • Trouble concentrating or focusing
  • Feeling sad most of the day

How is SAD diagnosed?

It takes a two-year period to diagnose a patient with SAD. The reason? “You have to see a pattern happening around the same time each year that’s not connected to a significant loss or traumatic event,” Davis says. “Generally, the person feels better in other seasons.”

What causes SAD?

When fall and winter arrive and the sun sets earlier, the natural processes (circadian rhythms) that coordinate the body’s psychological and physiological systems are affected.

“Our internal biological clock is triggered by sunlight and darkness, which help with the production of chemicals such as melatonin (a sleep-related hormone) and serotonin (a mood-related hormone),” Davis says. “The sunlight and darkness tell our bodies when to produce what.”

SAD can increase melatonin and decrease serotonin, which leads to less activity, sleeping more, and feeling low or depressed. “When you have a normal serotonin level, you feel more focused, have a better emotional state, happier and are calmer,” Davis says.

What treatments for SAD are available?

While medications and therapy are options, Davis shares several self-help approaches you can try first:

Light therapy to increase serotonin

  • Purchase a light box (or light therapy lamp) to mimic the sun’s rays.
  • Take a lunch break outside on sunny days — walk or go for a drive.
  • Increase your outdoor activities.
  • Use higher-watt light bulbs at home and turn them on in the evenings.
  • Get up earlier to experience more daylight.

Diet and exercise

  • Eat proteins (meats, lentils, eggs, chicken, fish) to increase serotonin and tryptophan levels, along with high-fiber foods (such as oats, bran, broccoli, avocados and nuts). An essential amino acid, tryptophan helps make serotonin
  • Exercise regularly to boost endorphins and decrease symptoms of SAD.
  • Get your vitamin D levels checked. Vitamin D helps with mood, concentration and focus; it is depleted by lack of sunlight.

Should I see a doctor for SAD?

If your depressed mood lingers for more than two weeks, or if it intensifies and impairs daily life, you may want to consider medication and therapy.

“You can use antidepressants to supply your body with serotonin,” Davis says. “It’s almost like when you have diabetes and get insulin — your body is affected by depression and you can get your body’s serotonin into a normal range with the help of the antidepressants.”

Ingalls Behavioral Health Department has an intensive outpatient therapy program at four locations to address a range of emotional health issues, including SAD. A free assessment involves “being evaluated with the use of different scales and measurements to determine the level of treatment that needs to be provided,” Davis says.

“Our goal is to get you to understand that there’s life beyond the depressive episode,” Davis says. “Information is key to helping people understand what’s going on, and giving them ideas and skills on how to help themselves.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, seek help immediately. Go to your nearest emergency room or call 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). You can also text HOME to 741741, where a volunteer from the Crisis Text Line will assist you in getting help.

For more information about Ingalls Behavioral Health Department, call 708-915-6411.

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