If all you feel like doing these days is climb in your bed, pull the covers over your head, and not come out until spring, you’re not alone. An estimated five to six million Canadians suffer every winter from winter blues, also know formally as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
The problem usually starts in early fall as days begin to get shorter and peaks in midwinter. SAD patients feel constantly fatigued, having to drag themselves out of bed even after plenty of sleep. Even the performance of simple daily chores becomes monumental. There is a loss of interest in everything and everyone and a tendency to avoid social interaction. Concentration becomes difficult as mental processes slow down along with the body.
Ironically, as the body becomes sluggish, appetite soars for carbohydrate-rich foods such as pastry, pasta, rice, potatoes, and chocolate, resulting in considerable weight gain.
The symptoms of SAD are similar to those of other types of depression, but the key difference is that it recurs winter after winter without any apparent cause.
What causes SAD?
SAD is a condition that afflicts inhabitants of northern countries. Evidence suggests that SAD is a disturbance in the circadian rhythm, the 24-hour pattern that normally aligns the sleep-wake cycle with all the other bodily rhythms. With the delayed dawn and shorter days of fall and winter, the rhythms of people afflicted with SAD drift out of phase with the sleep-wake cycle. The resynchronisation of circadian rhythm begins as the days get longer and is completed in late spring or summer.
If your symptoms are mild, you can benefit by spending more time outdoors and allowing plenty of sunshine into your home or office. Keep curtains open and trim any tree branches that may be obstructing sunlight. You can also benefit from plenty of exercise and eating a diet that is relatively high in protein and low in carbohydrates.
If your symptoms are more severe, you should see your doctor. Some of the treatment options he might suggest are:
- Light therapy: This involves sitting daily in front of a specially designed light box that emits light from a fluorescent bulb, most often in the morning for at least 45 minutes. This treatment works well for most patients and results are noticeable within a week. A few patients complain of eyestrain and headaches.
- Dawn Simulator: This device simulates a sunrise by switching on a bedroom light that gradually turns brighter every morning while you are still asleep.
- Antidepressants: These medications work by improving the balance of brain chemicals that affect mood.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy: This involves the use of psychotherapy that seeks to help SAD patients overcome negative emotions and behaviours. This treatment could be used in conjunction with light therapy.
Of course, if you could afford it, you could simply migrate to sunnier climes closer to the equator during the winter.