NYACK, N.Y. -- It’s common to feel down after the excitement of the holidays. Long January days and cold weather can combine to make people eat and sleep more. But for some people, the winter months bring a kind of depression that is more than the 'winter blues.' Known as seasonal affective disorder -- or SAD -- this type of depression usually begins in the late fall or early winter, and goes away by summer.
“With SAD, a person often gains weight and may sleep up to 14 hours a day during the winter,” said Dr. Michael Levy, senior attending psychiatrist at Nyack Hospital. SAD may cause constant fatigue and irritability, and a heavy feeling in the arms or legs. SAD may also bring on a craving for foods high in carbohydrates.
While the causes of SAD are not known, factors that may contribute include reduced sunlight in fall and winter, which can disrupt a person’s internal clock and lead to depression. Reduced sunlight can also cause a drop in levels of the brain chemical serotonin, which affects mood. Melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood, may also be affected by the change in season.
Treatment may include light therapy and antidepressant medication. Both treatments together appear to be more effective than either one alone, Dr. Levy noted. A person using light therapy sits in a room with a special light therapy box that exposes them to bright light. "Ordinary light doesn’t do the trick," Levy said. "Light therapy boxes for SAD are most effective when a person uses one at the beginning of the day, when it’s still dark out, for about two hours daily."
The winter can have a dampening effect on many people’s moods, even if they don’t have SAD, Levy explained. "Just after the holiday season, a lot of people seem to go into a mild funk," he said. "It can be a combination of the weather, feeling let down after the holidays are over, and the stress of job or school responsibilities."
For people who feel down during the winter but don’t have depression, Levy recommends trying to sleep with the shades up to let as much light in as possible. He also encourages people to try to take a winter vacation. "If you can go somewhere warm and well-lit in the winter, it can be helpful," he said. For those who can’t afford the time or money for such as vacation, try to get outside-- even on cold or cloudy days. "Get outside early in the morning, so you can expose yourself to whatever light is available."