NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — We’re all too familiar with the gloominess that comes with the long winters, but as the temperatures drop, for some people, so does their mood.
Millions of Americans have been diagnosed with a seasonal form of depression that doctors say is more than just the winter blues.
Dr. Shannon O’Neill, a psychologist at Mount Sinai, says seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that has seasonal patterns for at least two years. It’s also known as seasonal depression or winter depression.
People with SAD experience mood changes and symptoms similar to depression, but the symptoms usually occur during the fall and winter months when there is less sunlight. Their symptoms usually improve with the arrival of spring.
Symptoms include low energy, hypersomnia, overeating, weight gain, craving carbohydrates and social withdrawal. For those experiencing symptoms, it can interfere with daily functioning and be distressing or overwhelming.
O’Neill says the disorder is linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter. As seasons change, people experience a shift in their biological internal clock or circadian rhythm that can cause them to be out of step with their daily schedule.
About 5% of adults in the United States experience SAD, and it’s more common for those living farther from the equator, where there are fewer daylight hours. For example, only 1% of people in Florida experience SAD while it affects 9% of people in the New England area.
It typically starts when a person is between ages 18 to 30, and is four times more common among women than men. It’s also common to those with family or personal history of depressive disorders.
There are some treatments that can help. One such treatment is light therapy, where patients use a light therapy box that emits a bright light and filters out harmful UV rays. The intensity of light is recorded in lux, which measures the amount of light received.
O’Neill says sitting with a 10,000-lux light therapy box 2 feet away from your face for 20-30 minutes a day in the morning encourages your body to promote wakefulness. Those who use light therapy box treatment can experience symptom relief in 1-2 weeks.
Patients can also try behavioral strategies. To increase exposure to sunlight, spend time outside and arrange your home or office so you are exposed to a window during the day. Also, try to stay active and exercise regularly.
Additional treatments include taking SSRIs, antidepressants commonly used to treat SAD, and a vitamin D supplement, although the jury is still out on the effectiveness.