Health

Winter blues can be a symptom of seasonal affective disorder

Health, according to the World Health Organization, is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity”.[1] A variety of definitions have been used for different purposes over time. Health can be promoted by encouraging healthful activities, such as regular physical exercise and adequate sleep,[2] and by reducing or avoiding unhealthful activities or situations, such as smoking or excessive stress. Some factors affecting health are due to individual choices, such as whether to engage in a high-risk behavior, while others are due to structural causes, such as whether the society is arranged in a way that makes it easier or harder for people to get necessary healthcare services. Still other factors are beyond both individual and group choices, such as genetic disorders.

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Are you thinking whether winter depression is a thing? It turns out that a seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can alter your mood.

Come winter, don’t we all find it tough to step out of a warm, cosy bed in the morning? Don’t the cold winds make you feel low sometimes? But do you tend to feel more down and depressed during the winter season? Well, if your answer is ‘yes’, it can be a symptom of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Decreased sunlight during the short dark days of winter can make you feel a lack of energy. But don’t ignore it as it can be an effect of season change and winter depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It typically occurs in the early autumn to the late winter season. In some rare cases, it can even occur in the early summer season.

winter and seasonal affective disorder
SAD is a mood disorder characterised by depression that occurs at the same time every year. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,”The criteria for depression with a seasonal pattern include having depression that begins and ends during a specific season every year (with full remittance during other seasons) for at least two years and having more seasons of depression than seasons without depression over a lifetime”. The seasonal pattern depression occurs more commonly in the winter season, but like we mentioned, it can show up in summer as well.

What are the major causes of seasonal affective disorder?

The seasonal affective disorder is a psychological condition and includes major episodes of depression that are mostly triggered by the change of season, mostly winters. Clinical psychologist Dr Ruchi Sharma, consultant, HCMCT Manipal Hospital, Dwarka, New Delhi, tells HealthShots, “There are a few changes that our mind and body face during the change of season that causes winter depression”.

If you’re thinking about what those changes are, read on.

1. Your biological clock (circadian rhythm)

In winter, lots of people have altered routines which can lead to disturbance of our circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycles). Moreover, decrease in sunlight during fall season may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.

2. Serotonin levels

A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in triggering SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin hormone that may trigger depression.

winter and seasonal affective disorder
SAD may affect your happiness and joy! Image courtesy: Shutterstock

3. Melatonin levels

The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin. a hormone that responds to darkness by causing sleepiness). It plays a major role in sleep patterns and moods.

Sharma further explains that the major symptoms while diagnosing the disorder need to be associated particularly with seasonal change, and occur repeatedly for at least 2 years.

Typical symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include:

  1. Low mood and lack of energy
  2. Low motivation
  3. Increased irritability 
  4. Sudden changes in sleep and appetite
  5. Having difficulty concentrating
  6. Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  7. Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
  8. Oversleeping

With major episodes of seasonal depression, it becomes crucial to treat and combat the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

Sharma explains, “It is important to treat this because it can lead to other symptoms of decrease in attention, concentration, substance use or anxiety. It can also lead to other forms of depression and can have a detrimental effect on the overall quality of life of the individual”.

Furthermore, the expert advises how you can treat the disorder and overcome this condition.

1. Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is also known as ‘talk therapy’. It helps you identify and change negative thoughts and behaviours that may be making you feel worse.

2. Pharmacotherapy (usually with antidepressants)

Under the prescription of a psychiatrist, it is recommended to consume various antidepressants that may build the serotonin level in your body. High serotonin level stabilises your mood and triggers happy feelings. 

winter and seasonal affective disorder
Consultation is important before you take any kind of medication. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

3. Light or phototherapy

The victim is exposed to artificial lights as during the winters the days are short and decreased sunlight. Hence the artificial medium like SAD lamps stimulates sunlight and enhances the mood and sleeping patterns. 

4. Consume Vitamin D

Vitamin D is associated with depression. Taking vitamin D before winter darkness sets in may help prevent symptoms of depression. Hence sunlight, as well as other vitamin D supplements can be helpful in treating the symptoms of winter depression.

5. Exercise regularly

Yoga, outdoor sports, walking and other forms of exercise regularly can help in combating the seasonsal affective disorder.

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