Winter can trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder

By MSU Extension

OSCEOLA COUNTY — For most of the U.S., winter came early this year. According to The Weather Channel, since mid-November there have been more than 400 cold and record breaking lows covering 43 states. With this weather change, those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) may need to prepare for a longer season of symptoms with these temperatures.

What is SAD?

SAD is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. Most people with SAD will begin experiencing symptoms in the fall and continue into the winter months. Less often, some people with the opposite pattern have symptoms that begin in spring or summer.

The specific cause of seasonal affective disorder remains unknown.

Fall and winter SAD — symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression, may include:

  • Irritability
  • Tiredness or low energy
  • Problems getting along with other people
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection
  • Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially craving foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain

What causes SAD?

Although the specific cause of seasonal affective disorder remains unknown, some factors may include:

  • Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
  • Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

SAD treatments and prevention

Light therapy boxes can offer effective treatment for SAD. Light box therapy may be effective on its own, or light therapy may be more effective when it’s combined with another SAD treatment, such as an antidepressant medication or psychological counseling (psychotherapy).

SAD sufferers should be sure to consult with their doctor so they get a light therapy box that best suits their needs. This is especially important if their sleep patterns and appetite have changed or if they feel hopeless, think about suicide or turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation.