Beating the winter blues

December 16, 2013

During the winter months, some people feel like their normal personalities have deserted them. They're lethargic, irritable and moody.

Often referred to as winter blues, the condition is a real one. Doctors call it seasonal affective disorder -- or SAD. 

SAD describes a period of depression or low mood that's linked to a particular time of the year. Symptoms often begin in November and abate in the spring, says Dr. Gerald A. Maguire, professor of clinical psychiatry at UC Irvine Health.

Even people who haven't been diagnosed with a chronic mood disorder, such as major depression, can experience subtle symptoms of SAD each winter. Between 4 and 6 percent of Americans suffer from SAD while another 10 to 20 percent have a milder form of the condition.

It's natural to blame holiday stress for moodiness during winter months. But studies show that SAD is most likely caused by fewer daylight hours and less exposure to sunlight. People in northern states, where cloudy winter days are common, have higher rates of SAD compared to people in southern states.

"During the holidays, being alone or being around certain family members can be stressful for some people. But holiday stress coincides with a cause of SAD. The shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere is Dec. 21," Maguire says.

Having a family history of depression or suicide can be an added risk factor for a mood disorder, he adds.

"We're still learning about the underlying causes of SAD. But one thing we do know for sure is that light exposure can be beneficial in treating it."

Just getting outside more, especially in sunny climates like Southern California's, can help people with SAD, he says. Light therapy is also effective. It involves sitting each morning for 15 to 30 minutes under a special lamp or light box that simulates sunshine. This additional exposure to light is thought to stimulate neurotransmitters that elevate mood.

Medications, such as antidepressants, can also alleviate symptoms. People who are treated for chronic depression may find their condition worsens during the winter and may need light therapy, additional counseling or a change in medication.

"People don't have to suffer in silence with this condition," Maguire says. "There is help out there."

Do you have winter blues?

If you experience two or three of the following symptoms or characteristics during the winter months, you may have a form of seasonal affective disorder. Talk to a doctor to discuss a possible diagnosis and treatments that can help you feel better.

  • Disturbances in sleep (either too much or too little)
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in weight
  • Changes in energy level
  • Feeling guilty
  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol 
  • Thoughts of suicide (call a doctor immediately)