Seasonal Affective Disorder — The Scientific Explanation Behind Your February Winter Blues

Now that February — the notoriously dreariest month of all the winter months — is here, many health officials are turning their attention away from the flu epidemic and toward something a bit more difficult to discuss: seasonal affective disorder — i.e. SAD, which is the ironically accurate acronym for this health concern.

If you’ve noticed that you’re feeling a bit down in the dumps lately — and if you’ve noticed that this often happens during the winter months — you’re probably experiencing SAD.

First of all, you aren’t alone. It’s estimated that around 4% to 6% of all Americans regularly deal with SAD each year. Second of all, it’s actually a real biological condition, with proven causes, even though there isn’t yet a clinical test to diagnose SAD.

The condition, which is completely controlled by the seasons, usually starts showing up around October as the days get shorter. Most people notice SAD symptoms when it peaks around January or February, but it can last until April or May in severe cases.

The lack of sunlight during the winter is the primary cause of SAD, the Gannett News Service states. Sunlight causes the body to produce serotonin, a chemical in the brain that allows for positive emotions, and less sunlight during the winter means less natural serotonin.

Additionally, many people find that the stress of the holiday season — especially if they have lost a loved one recently — is a trigger for SAD.

The symptoms of SAD are nearly identical to those of depression: increased sleep, irritability, lack of motivation, withdrawal from social situations, a lack of interest in normal activities, and an overall feeling of hopelessness. The major difference between depression and SAD, however, is that SAD disappears once the cold weather ends.

Because SAD is quite difficult to diagnose, because it isn’t a constant condition, and because those suffering from SAD often don’t realize what it is, many people steer clear of prescription medication treatments (although they have been known to help).
Many SAD sufferers have turned to light therapy and/or counselling, but for those with minor cases of SAD, simply altering one’s daily routine and diet can help tremendously.

“People who suffer from SAD and recognize it as an issue should not just ignore their symptoms,” said Terri Porter, clinic administrator at Doctors Express Phoenix. “Often traveling to sunnier places for a long weekend is all you’ll need to start feeling rejuvenated. Phoenix, for example, is an excellent place to travel to in January because there are tons of outdoor activities to attend.”

In addition to taking vitamin D supplements, exercising more, and finding ways to get outside in the sun, many people also find relief through meditation, by eating healthier foods, and by creating a standard sleep schedule.

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