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Shining a light on the cause of winter blues
Why do shorter, darker days leave many people feeling blue?
 
Published Thursday, February 7, 2013 7:30 am
by Michaela L. Duckett

During the winter months when there’s less natural sunlight, depression is not uncommon. As the days get shorter, many people find themselves feeling sad.

So what is it about these shorter, darker days that leaves so many of us feeling down in the dumps? And how do we cope? The answers to these questions have eluded scientists for years.

Researchers have been studying the “winter blues” and a more severe type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD) for more than 3 decades. Yet, much still remains unknown about these winter-related shifts in mood.

“Winter blues is a general term, not a medical diagnosis,” said Dr. Matthew Rudorfer, a mental health expert at National Institutes of Health. “It’s fairly common, and it’s more mild than serious. It usually clears up on its own in a fairly short amount of time. Seasonal affective disorder, though, is different. It’s a well-defined clinical diagnosis that’s related to the shortening of daylight hours.”

Rudorfer said SAD interferes with daily functioning over a significant period of time. A key feature of the disorder is that it follows a regular pattern. It appears each year as the seasons change, and it goes away several months later, usually during spring and summer.

As with other forms of depression, SAD can lead to a gloomy outlook and make people feel hopeless, worthless and irritable. They may lose interest in their favorite hobbies, spending time with friends and in other activities they used to enjoy.

“Some people say that SAD can look like a kind of hibernation,” says Rudorfer. “People with SAD tend to be withdrawn, have low energy, oversleep and put on weight.”

Shorter days seem to be a main trigger for SAD. Reduced sunlight in fall and winter can disrupt your body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm. This 24-hour “master clock” responds to cues in your surroundings, especially light and darkness. During the day, your brain sends signals to other parts of the body to help keep you awake and ready for action. At night, a tiny gland in the brain produces a chemical called melatonin, which helps you sleep. Shortened daylight hours in winter can alter this natural rhythm and lead to SAD in certain people.

NIH researchers first recognized the link between light and seasonal depression back in the early 1980s. These scientists pioneered the use of light therapy, which has since become a standard treatment for SAD.

“Light therapy is meant to replace the missing daylight hours with an artificial substitute,” says Rudorfer.

In light therapy, patients generally sit in front of a light box every morning for 30 minutes or more, depending on the doctor’s recommendation. The box shines light much brighter than ordinary indoor lighting.Studies have shown that light therapy relieves SAD symptoms for as much as 70% of patients after a few weeks of treatment. Some improvement can be detected even sooner.

Light therapy is usually considered a first line treatment for SAD, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Some patients with SAD find relief in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy.

“For the ‘cognitive’ part of CBT, we work with patients to identify negative self-defeating thoughts they have,” says Dr. Kelly Rohan, a SAD specialist at the University of Vermont. “We try to look objectively at the thought and then reframe it into something that’s more accurate, less negative, and maybe even a little more positive. The ‘behavioral’ part of CBT tries to teach people new behaviors to engage in when they’re feeling depressed, to help them feel better.”

Behavioral changes might include having lunch with friends, going out for a walk or volunteering in the community.

“We try to identify activities that are engaging and pleasurable, and we work with patients to try to schedule them into their daily routine,” says Rohan.

If you’re feeling blue this winter, and if the feelings last for several weeks, talk to a health care provider.

“It’s true that SAD goes away on its own, but that could take 5 months or more,” said Rudorfer. “Five months of every year is a long time to be impaired and suffering. SAD is generally quite treatable, and the treatment options keep increasing and improving.” 

Ways to lift your mood

These “self-care” tips might help with seasonal depression. See a mental health professional if sadness doesn’t go away or interferes with your daily life:

• Go to a movie, take a walk, go ice-skating or do other activities you normally enjoy.

• Get out in the sunlight or brightly lit spaces, especially early in the day.

• Try to spend time with other people and confide in a trusted friend or relative.

• Eat nutritious foods, and avoid overloading on carbohydrates like cookies and candies.•Be patient. You won’t suddenly “snap out of” depression. Your mood will improve gradually.

• If you have thoughts of suicide, get help right away. Call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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