The 'winter blues': Could it be Seasonal Affective Disorder?

By Denise Coleman | Dec 10, 2013
Photo by: File photo According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), SAD is estimated to affect more than 10 million Americans.

As the weather gets colder and the daylight hours decrease, many people may experience symptoms of depression. This winter depression is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), this disorder is estimated to affect more than 10 million Americans. The APA estimates that another 10 to 20 percent will also have at least mild symptoms. Symptoms may appear as early as age 20 and they are more common in women than men.

Symptoms are much the same as in other forms of depression and include hopelessness, decreased energy, inability to concentrate, loss of interest in work or other activities, social withdrawal, unhappiness or irritability. Unlike other forms of depression which may be characterized by sleeplessness and weight loss, individuals with SAD often experience increased appetite with weight gain and increased sleep. In order for a medical professional to accurately diagnose SAD, they will need to know if depression symptoms tend to improve when the season changes; if symptoms have occurred at least two years in a row; if symptoms include craving carbohydrates and result in a weight gain; and if you are sleeping more than usual but are still fatigued during the day.

Another key factor in the diagnosis is whether the individual has a close family member with depression or alcohol abuse. Individuals with SAD often report at least one close relative with a severe depressive disorder (55 percent) or alcohol abuse (34 percent). Prior to diagnosing SAD, a medical professional will want to do a complete medical examination to rule out any possible physical issues that could be linked to the depression.

According to research through the Mayo Clinic, the suspected cause of SAD is a biochemical imbalance in the brain which is brought on by the decrease in sunlight in the winter upsetting the sleep-awake cycle. The lack of sunlight may also cause problems with a brain chemical called serotonin, which affects moods, or in melatonin, which is a natural hormone which plays a role in sleep patterns and moods.

Treatment of SAD may involve antidepressant medication to improve the balance of brain chemicals that affect mood; counseling to identify negative thoughts and behaviors and teach healthy ways of coping with SAD; or phototherapy. Phototherapy or light therapy has been found to be an effective treatment for SAD. This involves exposure to a specialized bright light box for 60 to 90 minutes each day.

It is important to recognize symptoms and seek medical and psychiatric help for this as well as any other depressive disorder. SAD can become severe with at least 6 percent of individuals requiring a hospitalization each year. If you suspect that you have SAD, contact your physician or a mental health professional.

The mission of the Evergreen Foundation is to improve access to and public awareness of quality prevention, treatment and support services by the provider community to individuals and families with intellectual/developmental disabilities, behavioral health and/or substance abuse needs in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. To learn more about the Foundation and resources, visit