Is there a cure for the wintertime blues?

If you’re one of the many people affected by the winter blues, you should know that treatment can help ease your symptoms and improve your quality of life.

Winter days can be cool and short, and sometimes keeping your spirits up can be hard work. But, for some people, it feels impossible. These people may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a recurring mood disorder that begins in the late fall and continues through winter. SAD can be a disabling illness that interferes with everyday activities.

Every winter, SAD affects half a million people in the United States. And even more may have a mild form of this condition, which is sometimes called the “winter blues,” according to Mental Health America.

The dark season

The shorter days of winter, when people are exposed to less and less sunlight, seem to be the source of SAD. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) says that the lack of sunlight may disrupt the body’s internal clock.

SAD may also be related to melatonin, a hormone that helps bring on sleep. The body produces more melatonin in the dark, so levels of this hormone rise in the winter. Melatonin has been linked to symptoms of depression and SAD.

SAD is more common in the northern United States than in the southern states, and January and February are the most difficult months. For some people, symptoms can be triggered any time of year by long stretches of cloudy weather.

Though SAD can be severe, symptoms are usually mild or moderate. According to the APA and other medical experts, symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue and a tendency to oversleep.
  • Loss of interest in normal activities.
  • Avoiding social situations.
  • Lack of energy, sometimes with a feeling of heaviness in the arms and legs.
  • A change in appetite, especially a craving for sweet or starchy foods. Weight gain may result.
  • Irritability and difficulty concentrating.
  • Loss of interest in sex.

SAD affects men and women of all ages, but women and young adults are most likely to develop the disorder, according to the APA.

Many people with SAD have at least one close relative with a psychiatric condition such as severe depression or alcohol abuse.

Turning on the light

Most people with SAD feel back to normal each spring. But that’s a long time to wait, and there are treatments that can help sooner.

According to the APA, some people with mild symptoms feel better just by taking long walks outside or spending time in front of a window during the day.

People with more severe symptoms might need light therapy. This involves exposure to lights bright enough to make a difference in brain chemistry.

During light therapy, a person sits in front of a special fluorescent lamp that is encased in a box or mounted on a visor that is worn like a cap. The lamp emits a bright white light, and a lens filters out dangerous ultraviolet radiation and also diffuses the light to reduce glare.

Light therapy takes about 30 to 90 minutes a day, and it’s best done in the morning. The therapy should be done every day and should continue until natural sunlight returns in the spring. If you stop too early, your symptoms may come back.

If light therapy is used too late in the day, it may make it hard to fall asleep at night. The therapy may also cause side effects such as irritability, eyestrain, headaches or nausea, but these are uncommon.

Some people with SAD need additional help from psychotherapy or antidepressants. If you feel so depressed that you have thoughts of suicide, you should see a doctor or go to an emergency department immediately.

But light therapy is very effective for most people with SAD. In fact, it brings complete remission of symptoms for 50 to 80 percent of people who use it, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

If you think you might have SAD, see your doctor. It’s important to get an accurate diagnosis and get started on treatment.

reviewed 8/19/2013

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