Have The Winter Blues Got You Down?

By Julia Samton MD


It’s only January and already most of the country has seen record freezing temperatures and grey skies. Many people chalk up feeling blue in winter as simply a fact of cold weather and lack of sunshine. But foru to six percent of people may have a winter depression, which is clinically referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder. Another 10 to 20 percent may have mild SAD. SAD is four times more common in women than in men. Although some children and teenagers get SAD, it usually doesn't start in people younger than age 20. Your chance of getting SAD goes down as you get older. SAD is also more common the farther north you go. For example, it's seven times more common in Washington State than in Florida. As a neuro-psychiatrist in Manhattan, I treat patients in my practice who display and express mood changes once September rolls around.


In most cases, seasonal affective disorder symptoms appear during late fall or early winter and go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. However, some people with the opposite pattern have symptoms that begin in spring or summer. In either case, symptoms may start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses.”

The following are symptoms to look for to see if you are suffering from SAD




*Loss of energy

*Heavy, "leaden" feeling in the arms or legs

*Social withdrawal


*Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
*Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates

*Weight gain

*Difficulty concentrating

How is SAD treated?

Many people with SAD will find that their symptoms respond to a very specific treatment called bright light therapy. For people who are not severely depressed and are unable—or unwilling—to use antidepressant medications, light therapy may be the best initial treatment option.

Light therapy consists of regular, daily exposure to a “light box,” which artificially simulates high-intensity sunlight. Practically, this means that a person will spend approximately 30 minutes sitting in front of this device shortly after they awaken in the morning. If patients do not improve, a second exposure of 20 to 30 minutes may be added in the early afternoon. Treatment usually continues from the time of year that a person’s symptoms begin, such as in fall, on a daily basis throughout the winter months. Because light boxes are created to provide a specific type of light, they are expensive and may not be covered by insurance. Unfortunately, having lots of lamps in one’s house and spending extra time outside is not as effective as this more expensive treatment.

Side effects of light therapy are uncommon and usually reversible when the intensity of light therapy is decreased. The most commonly experienced side effects include irritability, eyestrain, headaches, nausea and fatigue.