The winter-time blues

Feeling depressed as winter nears? You’re not alone.

Many around the world experience mood changes related to the weather, one of the most prominent is winter depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). (Photo: Shutterstock)
Have you ever felt yourself bummed out as the months pass from summer to autumn and into winter? If so, you are not alone. Many around the world experience what is known as winter depression or more formally Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). اضافة اعلان

This disorder has been classified as a type of depression, more specifically, a major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern, and is estimated to affect four percent of the world’s population. Although it may seem trivial or less severe because it is temporary, it is nevertheless a form of depression and should treated with the same gravity. 

The specific causes of SAD are still unknown but there are known factors that play a role in the disorder. The most important factor is the amount of sunlight we get.

Earth orbits the sun in an elliptical pattern, and the sun is not at the same distance from Earth. Ironically enough, during the winter months the planet is actually closer to the sun than it is in the summer. 

Winter is in fact the result of the axis being on an angle of about 23.5° perpendicular to the sun. For those who reside in the northern hemisphere, which includes Jordan, we are pointed away from the sun. With this comes less sunlight and the further you live from the equatorial line, the less day time there is.

 In Jordan, the amount of daylight goes from 14 hours and 17 minutes in June, to 10 hours and 7 minutes in December.

How does sunlight affect mood?

Our bodies’ internal biological clock, the circadian rhythm, is determined genetically and is integral to many bodily functions including wakefulness, body temperature, metabolism, digestion, and hunger. Most importantly, the circadian rhythm affects our sleep cycle and is heavily influenced by sunlight. Irregularities in the circadian rhythm can have a negative effect on sleep and other functions resulting in many health issues which includes mental health.
The changes in daylight can affect neurotransmitter levels in the brain.

Neurotransmitters are biochemical messengers that are used by the nervous system to communicate between various parts of the body. 
One important neurotransmitter is serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and hormone that is heavily responsible for mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness. Decreased levels of serotonin is largely responsible for depressive disorders and studies have shown that less sunlight can result in lower levels of serotonin. 

Similarly, melatonin is a hormone that aids in the circadian rhythm. Melatonin exerts a relaxing effect and lowers body temperature to help induce sleep. Its secretion is brought on by reduced lighting. During the winter, with prolonged hours of darkness, this can greatly affect your sleep cycle and result in sleep disturbances.

Risk factors for SAD

SAD is an interesting mental disorder from a clinical standpoint because it involves elements of environment, genetics, and mental health. SAD is a disorder that affects women more than men and occurs more frequently in younger adults than in older adults. 

Due to the circadian rhythm being largely determined by genetics, those with a family history of SAD are more likely to be diagnosed with SAD. Those who suffer from or have a family history of other mental disorders such as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder are also at greater risk. Furthermore, those who live further from the equator and receive less daylight during the winter are more likely to suffer from SAD.

Symptoms of SAD

SAD is a depressive disorder and as a result, shares many similarities with standard major depressive disorder. Signs and symptoms include: Feelings of depression most of the day nearly every day, apathy or loss of interest in activities that once brought joy, lethargy and low energy levels, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite or weight whether it is overeating or undereating.

SAD most commonly presents as changes in mood. Difficulty concentrating, feelings of hopelessness, agitation or guilt, feelings of worthless, or even having frequent thoughts of suicide or death, are all signs and symptoms of SAD. It is common to feel depressed during the winter but if it becomes a pattern and continues for days, it may be cause for concern. 

How to fight SAD

If you notice any of these serious symptoms in yourself or a loved one, consult your health care professional. There are many forms of treatment for SAD which can include medication such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (Zoloft). 

Before resorting to medication, speak to your doctor about nonpharmacological interventions. Simple lifestyle measures such as receiving as much sunlight as possible, exercising regularly, and managing stress, may be enough. Some have also found light therapy to be helpful in SAD. 

Light therapy is the use of an alternative light source, often referred to as a SAD lamp, that simulates sunlight to help restore the circadian rhythm. For those that prefer a more clinical approach, talk therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or counseling may also be beneficial. 

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