Popular culture has long acknowledged that sunlight is a mood booster while an overcast day is a downer. We talk about being "under a cloud" when we're blue, and we sing "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray." Yet not until 1984 was a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, designated by the National Institute of Mental Health as a potentially serious malady that may even bring on suicidal thoughts. Women, especially older women, are more prone to this type of depression than men are, and it does run in families.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are two key reasons that reduced sunlight brings on SAD:
Circadian rhythms are disrupted. Your body's internal biological clock that lets you know when you should sleep and when you should wake up is thrown out of kilter. The resulting sleep disturbances and feelings of disorientation can contribute to depression.
Serotonin and melatonin levels plummet.The supply of two of your brain's most important "happy chemicals" dwindles during the long, dark days of winter. That may trigger symptoms such as anxiety, hopelessness, fatigue, worthlessness, irritability, trouble concentrating, memory lapses, restlessness, and loss of interest or pleasure in activities you typically enjoy.
If you or someone you love seems to be suffering from SAD, there's no need to wait for the brighter days of springtime to ease the symptoms. Here are the treatments that can banish the winter blues:
Light therapy Also called phototherapy, this involves sitting a few feet from a box that exposes you to a special light that can increase the levels of the brain chemicals that have been depleted. You'll generally need two to four days of this to feel a difference. Side effects are virtually non-existent. You can buy a therapy lamp such as NatureBright SunTouch or Lightphoria for prices in the $70 to $85 range. That's a bargain when you consider that it's a one-time investment in lifting your spirits and getting you back to thinking clearly and taking pleasure in life.
Mind-body therapies Many people say they are helped by acupuncture, Yoga, meditation, and massage therapy. These treatments are certainly worth a try.
Socialize Sitting home alone and brooding will only worsen your mood. Push yourself to get out and about. Having a good laugh with friends and family can go a long way toward making you feel better. Better yet, see if you can find a little time and money for a short trip to a sunny clime. That could be just what the doctor ordered!
Medications Speaking of the doctor, though, you may actually need to schedule a visit. If light therapy and the other strategies mentioned so far aren't effective enough and you're still dragging around feeling out of sorts, antidepressants could be what you need. Those that are commonly prescribed include Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, Sarafem, and Effexor as well as the extended-release medication called Wellbutrin XL. If you typically have an annual bout with SAD, your doctor may have you start taking your medication before the symptoms set in.
Psychotherapy Particularly if you have a family history of SAD or of depression in general, you may benefit from talk therapy aimed at changing your negative thoughts and behaviors.
Finally, take good care of yourself! Eat a diet rich in Omega3s and other essential nutrients. Get enough sleep. And – you knew this was coming – exercise regularly. An active lifestyle helps releases your endorphins and increase your levels of serotonin and melatonin. That will go a long way toward chasing away those winter blues!