woman in winter
Mental & Emotional Health

Seasonal Affective Disorder: When the Weather Gets You Down

It’s that time of year.  The daylight hours are shorter, skies are overcast, and temperatures are cooler.  Even though it may not be their favorite season, most people can endure the winter months with no major side effects.

However, a small percentage – four to six percent of the U.S. population – struggle mightily every winter.  For them, wintertime goes hand-in-hand with a mental health condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Those who live with SAD have normal mental health for the rest of the year, but they experience a wide-range of cognitive and physical symptoms during the winter.  They report sleeping longer but wake feeling less rested.  They crave carbohydrates and have little interest in exercise.  They describe feelings of moodiness, trouble concentrating, depression and an overall malaise, as though the color has gone out of their world.

Then, spring arrives, and like a cloud lifting, the SAD symptoms dissipate as the weather improves.

“We don’t know exactly why seasonal affective disorder occurs,” said Michael Craig Miller, M.D. and a senior editor at Harvard Health Publications.  “…there are probably several different causes, including changes in the body’s natural daily rhythms (circadian rhythms), in the eyes’ sensitivity to light, and in how chemical messengers like serotonin function,” he said.

Often called the “winter blues,” SAD was first formally identified in the mid-1980s by Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D., at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Rosenthal experienced SAD firsthand.  A native of South Africa, a country famous for its sunshine, Rosenthal relocated to New York City for his medical residency.  During his first summer there, he remembers feeling energetic and sharp, but in late fall he noticed his energy level plummeted and he felt “down.”

Rosenthal theorized the cause was a reduction in the available light during the winter months, and he set out to learn all he could about the condition.

His research revealed that more women than men are affected by SAD, and it often runs in families.  SAD usually affects those aged 15 to 55, with the risk of developing the condition lowering as people age.

SAD is now widely recognized as a mental health condition, but it does have its detractors.

Earlier this year, Scientific American published an overview of a rigorous mental health study conducted by researchers at Auburn University.  The research team set out to interview a cross- sectional survey of 34,000 adults to “determine if a seasonally related pattern of occurrence of major depression could be demonstrated in a population-based study.”

The study concluded, “Depression was unrelated to latitude, season, or sunlight.  Results do not support the validity of a seasonal modifier in major depression.  The idea of a seasonal depression may be strongly rooted in folk psychology, but it is not support by objective data.”