Getting over the Winter Blues & Seasonal Depression

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a serious form of depression that occurs around the same time each year with the changing of the seasons. Researchers have identified two types of SAD seasonal depression with the most common type being "winter depression" beginning in the late fall to early winter months and ending in the spring. The second type of seasonal affective disorder occurs in the summer and is known as "summer depression". Of the 4 to 6 percent of the population that suffer from seasonal affective disorder 70 percent are women with symptoms usually beginning in the person's early twenties. A much larger portion of the population suffers from a less severe form of seasonal disorder called the "winter blues". Getting over the winter blues is a task that many affected individuals must face with the changing of the seasons.

The exact causes of SAD are unknown, but is believed to be based to some extent on our body's natural reaction to the changing light levels in our environment. Statistics show that the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder become much more common, last longer, and are more severe at higher latitudes. Getting over the winter blues maybe harder for some because exposure to light levels in our environment influence the body's production of certain hormones, specifically serotonin and melatonin.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to maintain many body functions as well as to help maintain emotional balance. Ninety percent of the body's serotonin is in the abdomen with the rest being found in the pineal gland of the brain and blood platelets. Low levels of serotonin affect our mental state, metabolism, and sleep patterns. This wonder hormone helps to regulate sleep cycles, memory and learning, appetite, mood and behavior, as well as depression, including seasonal depression.

Melatonin, also known as the sleep hormone, is a hormone that also affects our sleep cycle and emotional stability as well. It is synthesized in the pineal gland from serotonin and its release is stimulated by darkness and lowered lighting levels. The darker our environment is, the more serotonin is made into melatonin. The hypothalamus of the brain submits information to the pineal gland based on the light intensity shining on specialized photorecptors located in the retina of the eye. This information obtained through bio-chemical reactions determines whether or not more serotonin should be converted to melatonin.

In the spring and summer months when daylight hours are longer and we are exposed to more natural lighting our bodies naturally produce more serotonin. In the fall and winter months due to the shorter days and less exposure to the intensity of natural light the pineal gland will change more of the serotonin into melatonin. These decreased levels of serotonin and increased levels of melatonin bring about the symptoms of seasonal depression or the winter blues depending on severity.

The symptoms most common to seasonal affective disorder are:

  • Increased sleepiness and difficulty waking
  • Increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings
  • Weight gain
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of rejection
  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Inability to concentrate

Those that have serious difficulty getting over the winter blues should seek help from physicians. Physicians can typically easily diagnose seasonal affective disorder based on a set of standards developed by the American Psychiatric Association. The most common seasonal affective disorder treatment is the administration of light therapy using a SAD lamp that produces 10,000 lux in light intensity. Most people notice an improvement and relief from seasonal depression symptoms within 2 to 4 days with some individuals taking a few weeks. There are also medications and other counseling that are sometimes needed in addition if light therapy alone does not improve the symptoms of seasonal depression.