Winter depression: What causes seasonal affective disorder and how you can beat it

Michael Walsh
Winter depression: What causes seasonal affective disorder and how you can beat it

There ain’t no cure for those summertime blues — but you might be able to kick that winter funk.

If you start to feel down when the days get shorter and the temperature drops, you’re not alone. Winter depression is so common that it has a name: seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

Common symptoms include anxiety, irritability, fatigue, and sadness. Sufferers might find themselves craving more carbohydrates and sleep, while withdrawing from social activities.

About half a million Americans suffer from SAD and an additional 10 to 20 percent of the U.S. population are hit by a milder form of the winter blues, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

People at high altitudes or cloudier regions are at a greater risk for SAD.

But what is it about the supposedly “most wonderful time of the year” that bums out so many people?

The exact cause is unknown, but several factors may come into play.

Dr. Ani Kalayjian, professor of psychology at Columbia University, says that the lack of sunshine robs us of the vitamin D3 in ultraviolet B rays.

“It’s about the light and the deficiency in vitamin D3,” she said in an interview with Yahoo News. “Even when it’s not winter, most of us are lacking vitamin D3, which can result in signs of depression.”

After all, if you work long hours in an office with few windows, you could suffer from SAD all year round.

Experts say the dearth of sunlight can also disrupt your body’s internal clock (or circadian rhythm) and cause a decrease in serotonin (a neurotransmitter that affects one’s mood) — both of which can trigger depression.

Additionally, the seasonal change can bump melatonin levels off-balance, affecting sleep patterns and mood, according to the Mayo Clinic.

There are several ways someone can tackle these problems. Not surprisingly, eating green leafy vegetables and avoiding starchy, sugary foods can go a long way in fighting SAD — as can staying active.

“Exercise is very important because it releases endorphins, which bring us joy,” Kalayjian said. “Yoga, tai chi, tae kwon do, or other activities that focus on the breath — in a slow and attentive way — can add oxygen, which relaxes us and makes us feel good.”

Kalayjian recommends using vacation days during colder months to visit warmer climates, where we can soak up vitamin D3.

If these strategies do not work, sufferers can opt for light therapy, or phototherapy. Patients sit several feet from a special light that emulates natural sunshine and appears to relieve symptoms.

Doctors may also recommend psychotherapy or antidepressants, depending on the severity of the disorder.