SAD Winter Blues

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Winters come with cold, low sunlight and a lot of snow and craving for cosy environs. In certain cases, it triggers some health related issues, reports Zeenat Farooq

Winter blues is a mood-related condition observed among many people, inhabiting places situated away from the equator and have a prolonged winter season. Millions of people around the globe suffer from this condition in various forms, from mild lowering of mood to a full blown psychological condition. During those short, low-sunlight day periods, many of us do not feel like ourselves. The medical name for this winter depression is seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is much more than winter blues. It is much more than longing for the spring. It can be a very bad condition, sometimes may act like a seasonal slow suffering for the patient.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 5% of people in US suffer from SAD while 14% suffer from winter blues and most of the symptoms last till early spring. SAD is triggered by reduced number of daylight hours. However, cold temperature and decrease in the intensity of light during the day can also contribute to the condition (University of Vermont, Burlington).

What Triggers SAD?

The primary culprit in winter blues and SAD is the lower level of natural daylight in terms of both intensity and duration. This is known to cause decline in the levels of serotonin, disruption in circadian rhythms, which alters sleep-wake cycle and changes in melatonin secretion, a hormone which affects both sleep and mood.

Symptoms

SAD symptoms are the same as that of classical clinical depression like low mood, lost of interest in activities, decrease in social contacts, lethargy and sleepiness. Suicidal tendencies, however, are almost negligible in SAD as compared to clinical depression. Over-sleeping and over-eating are the hallmark symptoms of SAD.

Risk Factors

People have generally a greater tendency towards SAD include women at a ratio of 4:5 with men, young people in their 20’s, people with a family history or genetic predisposition, individuals with other psychological conditions like clinical depression or bipolar disorder. Females in the post-delivery phase are also more susceptible to experience the symptoms due to altered hormonal profile and greater tendency towards clinical depression.

Why SAD?

Despite the fact that most of us suffer low moods during winter, winter blues have largely been dismissed as just a myth. But scientists now agree on the fact that there is a correlation between daylight and mood. Many scientists believe that light entering into the eyes affects secretion of many hormones and neurotransmitters in the body (Dr Kerry, MHCM). It is believed that SAD is caused due to prolonged secretion of the hormone melatonin which induces sleep. Due to decreased light, intensity during morning hours in winter, secretion of melatonin continues unabated making a person groggy, tired and low to the extent that one is not even able to get of the bed. Another critical link for SAD is with serotonin, the so-called happiness neurotransmitter. People with SAD possess low levels of neural serotonin which leads to a depressed mood.

A Ground-Breaking Study

It is well known that people with a predisposition towards winter blues or SAD have a mutation in a gene responsible for transport of serotonin out of the brain. In this case, serotonin secretion remains unaltered but it is diluted at a faster speed from neuronal cells which is responsible for feelings of a low mood. However, some people with a genetic predisposition towards SAD are found to be resilient as their cerebral transporter levels for serotonin show seasonal decrease during fall and winter. In this way, they effectively regulate the levels of neuronal serotonin without actually changing its levels of secretion (Dr Brenda, Copenhagen, Denmark).

Coping Mechanism

The first step towards overcoming winter blues or SAD is recognising the symptoms and acting accordingly. Most of the symptoms related to winter blues can be managed with a healthy and active lifestyle. Find a treatment and lifestyle plan that works for you. Learn to strike the right balance.

1. Winter blues can often make you crave sugary foods and hot beverages like coffee, and hot chocolates. It is very important to stay healthy through winter because physical activity is anyways at a low and SAD can make you feel even worse. Consuming hot soups rich in vegetables is a good choice. Addition of fresh fruits is also a very good option.

2. During winters, it is common to feel down on mood and lethargic. But if the signs start permeating all your activities and your general outlook towards happiness, aspects of life like relationships, and work, maybe it is time to consult a specialized psychotherapist for possibility of SAD.

3. Make conscious efforts to keep yourself physically active against the basic instincts of lethargy associated with SAD. A huge volume of scientific data suggest that 30 minutes of vigorous physical activity for 3-4 days per week is very effective against all psychiatric illnesses like depression and SAD (Mental Health Foundation of United Kingdom). Even light outdoor walks for around 20 minutes are very helpful. Stepping outside is a general mood-elevator. Besides, it will also help you gain more exposure to daylight to combat SAD. It can also help you interact and socialize with people, thereby positively affecting your mood and general health. Physical activity is also believed to affect the levels of serotonin in the brain.

4. Some people with severe SAD symptoms may also require therapy, most effective of which is light therapy whereby a person is exposed to bright, UV-filtered light for 1-2 hours during a session, depending upon the severity of symptoms. This exposure counteracts melatonin secretion and alleviates the symptoms.

5. Daylight is a natural anti-depressant. More daylight acts by preventing the removal of serotonin (happiness neuro-transmitter) from the brain. Like many anti-depressants, daylight acts on a gene called 5-HTTLPR, which is involved in cerebral serotonin transport. More daylight lowers the levels of this transporter and enhances serotonin retention in nerve cells.

6. Cognitive behavioural Therapy(CBT) in which patients are motivated to modify their behaviour, thinking patterns, learn new skills and abilities has been shown to be a promising approach to treat SAD according to a recent study.

7. Regulation of sleep-wake cycle to positively normalize circadian rhythms is also a very good treatment option.

8. Some people move to a brighter place for short term holidays. However, this has been seen to be counter–productive in some cases where some of the sufferers experienced more severe symptoms once they return home.

9. Melatonin pills are also a treatment option for SAD. Anti-depressants can also be prescribed to some patients, depending upon the condition. This, however, should be done under the supervision of an expert practitioner.

(Author is a Research Fellow at the Department of Biotechnology, University of Kashmir.)

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