Wise Words – Are You Feeling SAD This Winter?

Submitted by Dr Becky Wise

Are you SAD this winter?

Everyone goes through times of sorrow, due to loss, loneliness, uncertainty, etc. but depression is something more severe than just sorrow. Seasonal Affective Disorder is appropriately abbreviated SAD because it is a form of depression that comes and goes based on the time of year, and affects about 1 in 5 Americans. There are two main types – Winter or Summer. Winter SAD generally starts in autumn and may be based on the shortening of daylight hours or being unable to spend as much time in outdoor activities. On the other hand, Summer SAD starts in the Spring and may be related to changes in health or physical abilities that result in not being able to enjoy summer activities.

For Winter Seasonal Affective Disorder, if you are sleeping more than usual, craving sweet or starchy foods, gaining weight, more irritable than normal, or experiencing “hurt-feelings” frequently, you may be starting a period of depression. If you have more than one of these symptoms together, and you feel as though your body is exhausted all the time, you may be in the middle of a depressive episode.

SAD-WEBHowever, Summer SAD is quite different. If you are having more restless sleep, losing weight, feel like no food tastes good, or want to be alone for extended periods of time, you may be starting to experience this form of depression. These symptoms are more typical of depression that will last all year, and not resolve before winter.
In either case the symptoms can be treated with some home remedies, but you should always check with your physician first to be sure they are safe for you. Also, if any symptom becomes severe, or you feel like hurting yourself, seek immediate medical attention.

Light Therapy is best for Winter SAD that is caused by the shortening of daylight. It involves turning on a special lamp in your home (sometimes several rooms) for early morning and late evening hours that mimics sunlight. This light stimulates your brain through your eyes and reduces the change in neurochemistry that can lead to symptoms of depression. If you can’t find a full-sun-spectrum lightbulb, blue light is the best single-spectrum light to help. You should be able to find these in a hardware store. Also, avoid tanning beds because of the lack of standardization in this industry which results in inconsistent results for both efficacy and safety – some tanning bed rays have been linked to melanoma.

Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your overall heath, but also one of the most efficacious ways to beat depression, and in particular, the Winter form of SAD. Get at least 30 minutes every day of activity that increases your heart rate. Activity with friends or family is best, so play sports, jog together, take a class, etc.

Sleeping on a schedule is also important. You should lie down and get up at the same time all year. If you are sleeping more or less than normal at certain times of the year, your body cannot continue normal biological processes and the reaction will express itself as symptoms of depression.

Over-the-counter (OTC) products that have some efficacy for SAD include melatonin and vitamin D3. If you choose to take D3, use a multivitamin containing magnesium and take it with dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese) for best absorption. Another OTC supplement that is good for brain health in general is fish oil or Flaxseed oil. For any You can try to get these vitamins and nutrients through your diet by eating fish, walnuts, and avocadoes. But, for using any OTC product, always start with the lowest dose available, and try it for at least 2 weeks before increasing. But, if a specific product or dose worked well for you in the past, you can start with that.

Medicines like antidepressants can be used in some people. Each is different and need to be prescribed by a physician but some of the most common are from a class of drugs that act on a brain chemical called serotonin. The meds are called SSRIs and include Celexa, Lexapro, Zoloft, Prozac, and Paxil. These take a few weeks to kick-in, and a few weeks to taper off of, so if you have a history of seasonal depression, you can talk to your doctor before the first symptom to prevent them.

What you may not know, is that more serotonin is produced by your gut than your brain, so tummy health is very important to your mental well-being. You should watch your diet, incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables, and avoiding processed meats. Also, you might want to consider using a probiotic on a daily basis to keep your GI system healthy. Probiotics are in yogurts, and in capsule-form, but note that the capsules should be kept in the refrigerator for best effect.

Counseling is also an option, and has shown great results in folks with Summer SAD and non-seasonal forms of depression as well. (Scientific evidence for Winter SAD is not as strong). Finding a therapist that you like and connect with might take some trial-and-error, so don’t give up on the first try. Also, it takes more than just talking about your thoughts and feelings – you must be committed to changing for any therapy to work.

So, if you are sad this winter, or anytime, have a conversation with your physician about it, and discuss these options for keeping you healthy and happy all year. And finally, find a way to choose joy during times of sorrow – new hobbies, conversations with family or friends, reading a new book or watching a movie are all ways to get your mind off your troubling thoughts.

Good luck!

Be Well, Be Wise,


Dr Rebecca Wise
Dr Rebecca Wise

Wise Words…. is a general medical information column from Rebecca Miller Wise, MEd, PharmD, CGP. Dr. Wise has a master’s degree in education as well as her doctorate in pharmacy. She is a nationally board certified geriatric pharmacist and an assistant professor at a local medical college.


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