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Why does winter make me SAD?

January 16, 2019 • read

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Why does winter make me SAD?

Many of us get the winter blahs — we eat more, sleep more (or want to, anyway), and feel like we have less energy or motivation. But for some, the winter blues can become something more serious — Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.

What is SAD?

SAD is a time-limited, clinical depression, brought on by the change of season. It tends to begin in the fall when the days are getting noticeably shorter, and can get worse as the winter comes. Though the precise cause hasn’t been isolated, it is associated with differing levels of serotonin, melatonin and vitamin D, and a change in circadian rhythms (your sleep/wake cycle).

To diagnose SAD, a doctor will ask you about changes in your mood, sleeping, socializing and eating throughout the year.

The numbers

While about 15 percent of us in Canada get some form of the “winter blues,” between two to six percent of the population will experience SAD over their lifetime. Though we don’t know why, women are four to eight times more likely to have SAD than men. And while adults have a higher risk of developing it than children, the risk starts to decline after age 50

What are the symptoms of SAD?

SAD is just like “regular” depression in terms of presentation, except that it’s time-sensitive. A doctor can diagnose SAD if the patient has a pattern of depression that coincides with the changing of the seasons. To be diagnosed, you must have gone through two winters with depression but experience no symptoms in spring or summer. The symptoms of SAD can include constant or excessive feelings of tiredness and increased sleep needs — individuals might even sleep for two to four hours more a day. You might also be irritable and moody, and have difficulty concentrating along with feelings of sadness. Many people also report cravings for carbohydrates and weight gain.

What are the treatment options?

In the case of SAD, there’s a large body of literature surrounding successful treatment options.  As with other forms of depression, doctors can recommend both medication and talk therapy. For this particular form of depression however, one of the most successful treatment options is light therapy. This involves exposing the affected person to a specially designed light that mimics sunlight. Exercise and taking vitamin D supplements are often recommended as well. A sunny vacation is more expensive option, but keep in mind that symptoms will likely return when you do.

Did you know?

SAD can also affect people closer to the equator. A small number of people experience SAD in the reverse, experiencing symptoms in the spring and summer. Symptoms are similar to winter SAD except that those affected typically experience lower appetite and weight loss, and difficulty sleeping. While winter SAD increases the further north you go, summertime SAD more often affects those living closer to the equator. The cause seems to be linked to levels of melatonin and sufferers of summertime SAD can even experience hypomania.

What should I do if I think I have SAD?

Because the “cure” for SAD can be light, people sometimes dismiss the illness as somewhat insignificant. For many however, it isn’t. Depression, whether SAD or another form, is a serious illness. It can cause significant physical and emotional pain and can even result in death. If you think you have SAD or another form of depression, you are not alone and you don’t have to “muscle” through it. There is treatment available, and you can feel better. Speak to a doctor about your options.

Get better, faster.

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