Almost 25-35% of Canadians report having what is known as a lack of positivity during the cold winter months, which dissipates once the winter is over [1]. This is often referred to as the “winter blues.” However, when feelings of hopelessness and lethargy settle in and you find yourself oversleeping drastically and putting on what seems like more than just holiday weight, it could mean you have developed a more severe form of winter depression, known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Only 2-5% of Canadians are known to have this form of depression [1].

A definitive cause for SAD is not currently known, however, many scientists have been speculating and putting forth theories. Dr. Robert Levitan, Research Head at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program, postulates the disorder itself may have had functional significance in the distant past, and might have been employed as a survival tactic: “Conserving energy and protecting ourselves during the ice age when food resources would have been sparse used to be very adaptive and helpful to our ancestors, especially women in their child-bearing years” [2].  This could explain the prevalence of the disorder in women. In fact, eighty percent of those affected by SAD are women, most of which are of child-bearing age  [1, 3].

Then again, a more traditional thought about its origins is that the shorter winter days can throw off our sleep-wake cycle by prompting the body to produce an excess of melatonin [4, 5]. Darkness in the environment is what triggers the production of melatonin, a natural sleep-inducing chemical in the body. Thus, it makes sense that overly gloomy days filled with prolonged periods of darkness can produce a much stronger urge to sleep. As a result, geographical location – which determines latitude and day length – appears to be one major originating factor of SAD [3] (among other less supported factors such as temperature, genetics, and individual brain chemistry [5]).

Whatever the cause may be, SAD is a disorder that can cause significant disruption in day-to-day living. Thus, treatment is often needed. Even if you don’t have SAD but report having the milder form known as winter blues, the same forms of treatment can help [1].

Currently, the best option to help ameliorate symptoms seems to be light therapy or phototherapy, which involves sitting in front of a lamp that generates light which emulates natural sunlight [3]. This method works almost immediately but, over time, tends to have the same efficacy as pharmacological interventions or antidepressants, which take about eight weeks to kick in and have more side effects [2, 4, 6].

It is important to note that both time of day and specific type of lighting are crucial components when using this form of treatment. Because of the nature of the disorder and it’s ability to interfere with the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle or circadian rhythm, administration of phototherapy first thing in the morning for about 30 minutes is most effective [3]. In addition, blue light has been found to produce the most positive result in terms of reducing the depressive symptoms of SAD [3].

Although the methods mentioned above have important clinical significance, there are things you can do on your own that can also help to manage your symptoms [7, 8, 9]:

1.) Spend more time outdoors

Bundle up and try going for a brisk walk to soak up some sun rays. Perhaps walk to a bus stop not too far away, or spend part of your lunch break outside walking to a nearby coffee shop. Try to maximize the amount of exposure you get to natural sunlight. Venture outside after a fresh snowfall – the sunlight reflecting off the snow will help.

2.) Let the sun in

If you can’t find time to go outside, make your inside environment a little brighter instead. Open the blinds or sit near a window while working. If you live somewhere where trees are blocking the natural light from coming in through your windows, consider cutting them down or installing some skylights. It’s important to note that artificial light won’t cut it so try to maximize the amount of natural light in your home.

3.) Get active

Exercise is known to increase feelings of well-being as well as release endorphins which can cause a natural anti-depressant effect [10]. Try building a habit of going for a morning jog (which will also help with gaining exposure to natural light!). If you’re not much of a runner or find it boring, skiing is also a great way to gain exposure to natural sunlight while getting active.

However you choose to fight the winter blues, take solace in the fact that winter is only one of four seasons – the rest of which will reward you with warmer weather, more sunshine, and hopefully even some vacation time.

 

By: Christina Gizzo

Edited by: Alisia Bonnick

Image by: Erin Seigel

 

References:

[1] CAMH (2012) Seasonal depression, winter blues and seasonal affective disorder: CAMH expert available for interview. Retrieved from: http://www.camh.ca/en/hospital/about_camh/newsroom/news_releases_media_advisories_and_backgrounders/current_year/Pages/Seasonal-depression,-winter-blues-and-seasonal-affective-disorder–CAMH-expert-available-for-interview-.aspx

[2] CBC (2015) SAD no longer: Brilliant light cure for seasonal disorder. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/sad-no-longer-brilliant-light-cure-for-seasonal-disorder-1.2962056

[3] Danilenko, K. V., Levitan, R. D. (2012) Chapter 17 – Seasonal affective disorder. Neurobiology of Psychiatric Disorders. 106, 279–289.

[4] WebMD. Beating Winter’s Woes. Retrieved from: http://www.webmd.com/depression/features/beating-winters-woes

[5] Young, M. A., Meaden, P. M., Fogg, L. F., Cherin, E. A., & Eastman, C. I. (1997). Which environmental variables are related to the onset of seasonal affective disorder?. Journal of abnormal psychology, 106(4), 554.

[6] Lam, R. W., Levitt, A. J., Levitan, R. D., Enns, M. W., Morehouse, R., Michalak, E. E., & Tam, E. M. (2006). The Can-SAD study: a randomized controlled trial of the effectiveness of light therapy and fluoxetine in patients with winter seasonal affective disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(5), 805-812.

[7] Canadian Mental Health Association (2013) Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from: https://www.cmha.bc.ca/get-informed/mental-health-information/sad#F

[8] HelpGuide (2016) Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Retrieved from: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad.htm

[9] Mayoclinic (2014) Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Retrieved from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/basics/lifestyle-home-remedies/con-20021047

[10] Harvard Health Publications (2009) Exercise and Depression. Retrieved from: http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-and-depression-report-excerpt