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Seasonal Affective Disorder

More than just the winter blues

Seasonal Affective DisorderAs the days become shorter, are you finding that you’re feeling gloomy, it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning and you just don’t seem to have the energy to do much of anything? Perhaps you felt the same way at this time last year. If that’s you, you could have Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Six percent of American adults do. Another 14 percent suffer from a milder form called “winter blues,” when their mood, energy level, and productivity are lower than during the rest of the year. Women are more susceptible than men.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The disorder is a pattern of major depression that comes and goes with changes in the seasons, occurring most often in winter.

Symptoms can begin as early as September or as late as Christmas and last until spring. “Many people can predict almost to the week when they will begin to experience their symptoms,” said Dr. Norman Rosenthal, the researcher who named the disorder. People living in northern areas may experience their symptoms earlier.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder include:

  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of energy
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increased desire to sleep and/or sleep disturbances
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Overeating; craving of carbohydrates, chocolate, caffeine
  • Weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Decreased sexual drive or interest

If you suspect you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder, talk to your doctor. These symptoms can be confused with other medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, chronic fatigue syndrome or viral infections like mononucleosis.

What causes it?
Seasonal Affective Disorder has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain caused by shorter daylight hours. The brain gets too much of the hormone melatonin which has been linked to depression and helps to regulate eating, sleeping, weight control and sex drive.

Other research suggests that lack of serotonin, a brain chemical that seems to be triggered by sunlight, is the reason for winter depression.

Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Treatment can help relieve the depression, lack of energy, carbohydrate craving and weight gain of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Talk to your doctor about what might help you.

Light therapy
Like many animals, humans are hard-wired to be active during daylight and to shut down at night. But modern environments made up of dim, windowless workplaces and houses lamp-lit by evening disturb our ancestral circadian rhythms.

Light therapy may influence the three key neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, says Rosenthal.

Antidepressants and the light-sensitive hormone melatonin can help. Talk to your doctor.

Medication may be combined with light therapy, which may make it possible to take smaller doses of medication.

Stress can increase Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms, making stress management important, especially during the winter months. Psychotherapy can help, especially cognitive therapy.

Regular aerobic exercise can also help improve mood. It’s even more effective if done outdoors or in front of a light box. A support group for people with mood disorders can offer support, friendship and strategies that others have found useful. (Contact your local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) or Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA).

Some Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers decide to relocate to a place with a sunnier climate, but even a winter vacation in a sunlit spot can help a sufferer make it through the dark season.


Winter Blues, Revised Edition: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder, Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D. The Guilford Press 2002
American Psychiatric Association
U.S. National Institutes of Health
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Swedish Medical Center, Seattle WA
Mayo Clinic

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