Hibernation or Depression?

From September to January, we lose nearly four hours of daylight. For five to six percent of the population, the shorter days trigger seasonal affective disorder or SAD. Most people notice SAD symptoms starting in the fall and increasing during the winter months.

The cause of SAD, a subtype of depression, remains somewhat elusive. “Your brain is a complicated neuro-network, but the disorder has to do with the regulation of melatonin secretion in the brain,” says Matthew Wagner, M.D., psychiatrist with Meritus Behavioral Health Services.

Who’s at risk?

People who live farther away from the equator and have less exposure to sunlight are more likely to suffer from SAD. Women, who often experience depression, are also more prone to wintertime depression.

For some, a desire to hibernate and eat more is a sign of the winter blues, a less severe form of SAD, but a profound loss of energy and no desire to get out of bed means you should see your primary care physician, psychologist or psychiatrist.

Telltale signs of SAD include:

  • Greater need for sleep
  • Increased appetite and craving of complex carbs
  • Sad or empty feeling
  • Lack of interest or motivation
  • Decreased energy
  • Negative thinking
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Social withdrawal

“SAD symptoms are similar to clinical depression, but there’s more of a profound loss of energy, weight gain and interest in sleep,” says Dr. Wagner.

How do you treat SAD?

Physicians look at a patient’s demeanor, examine patterns of depression and seek behavioral observations from family members to help diagnose SAD. Treatment, says Dr. Wagner, is tailored to each patient’s situation.

A common approach to treating SAD is light therapy or phototherapy. “50 to 80 percent of patients notice an improvement,” says Dr. Wagner. Using a light box to mimic the sun, patients sit in front of the box and let light enter their eyes.

“It’s important to use the light box during the morning hours to signal to the brain to reduce melatonin secretion,” says Dr. Wagner. He recommends investing in a 10,000-lux light box.

Treatment of SAD may also include talk therapy and/or antidepressants. Dr. Wagner believes that all patients benefit from counseling. “Therapists offer advice on establishing routines, engaging in meaningful activities and using coping strategies.”

Lifestyle enhancements

Other ways to curb SAD symptoms include getting outside as much as possible, especially on sunny days; avoiding alcohol; maintaining a consistent bedtime and wake up schedule; and aiming for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week.

1. Use a 10,000-lux light therapy box (from $50 to $350, depending on the model) for 10 minutes every day.

2. Take a multivitamin containing vitamin D, which is naturally derived from sunlight. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and phosphate from our diets, and is important for healthy bones, teeth and muscles.

3. Invest in a dawn simulator or sunrise lamp (from $20) that mimics early morning light if it’s dark outside.

4. Do moderate-to-vigorous exercise; it releases endorphins to fight low mood and carbohydrate cravings.

5. See a health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist (who can prescribe medicine).