More than just a ‘Blue Christmas’

About 15 percent of Americans suffer from the effects of the changing seasons.


Seasonal Affective Disorder affects millions of Americans.

Though singers from Elvis Presley to Carrie Underwood have sung about a Blue Christmas, the holiday song written by Billy Hayes and Jay Johnson doesn’t even scratch the surface of the blues felt by some people this time of year. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is tied into a season, most often the months of winter. As the days grow shorter and colder, and the amount of sunlight lessens, about 15 percent of Americans suffer from the effects of the changing seasons.

For these individuals, the season brings constant tiredness and fatigue. Spurred by poor sleep patterns, the one suffering from SAD often has body aches, irritability, and loss of passion. Many experience a roller coaster of emotions, often leaving them in tears for no apparent reason.

Another common symptom of the disorder is the craving for carbohydrates. The extra carbs, coupled with poor sleep and less exercise, usually results in a weight gain. The extra weight adds to body aches, sluggish feelings and additional depression. In extreme cases, SAD can be associated with thoughts of suicide.

The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are similar to those of depression. “I think I got it from my aunt. She always called it the ‘winter blues.’” Julie tried to define how she felt, but seemed to be trying harder to explain why she felt that way. Recent studies affirm that the disorder is genetically linked.

Jim’s disdain for the season was really clear: “I hate winter. I always have. It lasts far too long. It makes me cranky and irritated and I can’t focus. My grades in college are much better in the spring than the winter. I just don’t understand it. I didn’t think men had these kind of issues.”

While SAD is about four times more common in women than men, it often affects men who are prone to bipolar disorders or who are very active athletically in the summer but not the winter.

In addition to heredity and lack of exercise, seasonal affective disorder can be triggered by the disruption of one’s “biological clock” that occurs because of the decrease in sunlight. Similar to jet lag, a drastic change in the body’s internal rhythms can lead to feelings of exhaustion and depression. The Mayo Clinic says SAD isn’t just imagined. The lack of sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical tied to mood swings. In addition, lack of vitamin D from the sun can alter the balance of melatonin in the body, a chemical which directs both sleep and moods.

There are a wide range of treatments that can help alleviate SAD symptoms. Local physicians agree that if you have mild winter blues, trying any of the remedies on your own may prove helpful. If you have more severe depression symptoms, whether seasonal or not, you should consult with professionals for guidance. Here are three treatments that might be worth considering.

• Recently a great deal of research and attention has been given to light therapy. Sitting in an intense light for 15 to 20 minutes daily helps increase the amount of light that hits the retina. Michael Terman, director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia University in New York estimates that light therapy can relieve the symptoms of 80 percent of SAD cases. The therapy needs to be monitored and regulated by professionals, but some say improvements in indoor lighting can produce positive results.

• Exercise, especially early in the mornings, has been found to have a dramatic positive effect on SAD sufferers. Resisting the temptation to sleep late or stay in bed on cold, dreary days improves both energy and attitude. Even the limited light on a gray morning provides much more light than a typical indoor setting. And the exercise stirs the body, stimulates healthier food cravings, and helps people fall asleep earlier, resulting in a deeper rest.

• A John Hopkins University study suggests increasing levels of vitamin D as another treatment. The university compared two test groups of patients who had SAD symptoms. Half of the patients received regulated light therapy while the other half were given large doses of vitamin D. Michael Gloth, the lead investigator for the study, was surprised that while the light-therapy group showed virtually no improvement, every single person who received the vitamin D improved significantly. Consult your local physician before embarking on a regimen of increased vitamin intake.

Though there is no known way to prevent the development of seasonal affective disorder, taking clear steps to manage the symptoms may help prevent them from getting worse and negatively impacting the quality of life in a severe way.



Published in the October/November issue of Southern Indiana Fitness Source

// article: Tom may