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Seasonal affective disorder is very real — and very common

It’s the time of year when days are shorter, the weather is colder and snow always seems to be on the way. Many of us start work before the sun rises and don’t finish or get home until long after it sets, leaving us little time to enjoy the daylight.

Cue the winter blues: This seasonal depression is called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. We asked a primary care doctor to recommend habits that can be helpful in fighting the funk.

“SAD is a form of depression that temporarily affects people during the winter months but tends to go away during the spring and summer months as the days begin to lengthen again,” explains Dr. Gwendolyn Alexandria Bodkin, a family medicine doctor at Geisinger Lycoming.

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

Most people with SAD feel moody or grumpy, lose motivation for activities they would normally enjoy doing and may sleep more but still feel tired. They also crave more carbohydrates — think comfort foods like macaroni and cheese, other pastas and bread.

“People who already have low-grade depression — including confinement, irritability and anxiety spurred by the current pandemic — may experience a marked increase in their symptoms.” 

If you’ve experienced feelings of sadness and depression during the winter over the past two years, you may have SAD.

Who does SAD affect?

While seasonal affective disorder can affect anyone, those who are more likely to develop the condition include:

  • Women
  • People who live farther from the equator, where the days are shorter
  • Those between age 15 and 55

“Doctors and researchers aren’t exactly sure what causes SAD, but many suspect it’s got something to do with the lack of sunlight we face when the days are shorter,” says Dr. Bodkin.

5 tips to feel better if you’ve got the “winter blues”

If the colder season has you (as well as your fingers) blue, Dr. Bodkin recommends developing a few habits to help you feel more like yourself.

  1. Go outside. It may be cold outside, but getting out of your house or office can help you shake the blues. Try taking a walk during your lunch hour or spending time outside on the weekends to expose your body to more natural light.

  2. Exercise. Elevating your heart rate with a brisk walk, bike, run, swim or other workout can stave off feelings of moodiness. When you exercise, your brain releases chemicals called endorphins that boost your mood.

  3. Consider light therapy. During the winter months, a light therapy box can provide some relief from the symptoms of SAD. A light therapy box uses a special fluorescent light bulb that mimics daylight. “Light therapy should be done within an hour of waking up for about 20 to 30 minutes,” says Dr. Bodkin. “The key is to keep the light box near your face but not to look directly at the light.”

  4. Eat healthy. While you may crave comfort foods, eating a more heart-healthy diet can help treat SAD. Research has shown that a diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy proteins decreases the risk of feeling down.

  5. Keep a set sleep schedule. Getting enough sleep and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule can help you combat SAD. “Most people need about 8 hours of sleep each night, and to fight SAD, it’s helpful to wake up with the sun in the morning,” notes Dr. Bodkin.

If these natural remedies don’t seem to be helping, let your doctor know. Like other forms of depression, seasonal affective disorder may also be treated with medication, like antidepressants, and talk therapy.

Next steps:

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Insomnia? Here’s how to deal with sleep anxiety
Learn more about primary care at Geisinger