Health Matters: When it’s more than the winter blues

By Amber Thompson
Medical student and member of the student group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford

As the days get shorter during the fall and winter months, many people suffer from feelings of loneliness or fatigue. This can be from the colder weather keeping us from going out as much or from getting less sunlight in our busy, mostly indoor lives. However, for some people, these symptoms become more than just a case of the winter blues and cross over into the realm of clinical depression. When these extreme feelings of depression occur during specific seasons of the year, it’s called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Between 4 and 6 percent of people in the U.S. suffer from SAD, and it tends to be more common in women than men. Additionally, wintertime SAD is more common in the northern U.S., as we tend to get much less sunlight.

Clinical depression is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV-TR (the psychiatric manual) as at least two weeks of feeling depressed or a loss of interest or pleasure in things that are usually very satisfying.

Symptoms of clinical depression can be physical and include changes in appetite, weight and sleep. People with wintertime SAD tend to gain weight, have a ravenous appetite, and seem to need to sleep a lot more or have trouble waking up in the morning. Despite this extra sleep, sufferers of SAD tend to feel more fatigued, lack energy and have more trouble concentrating during the day.

Other symptoms of clinical depression (including SAD) are a tendency to withdraw from family and friends, irritability, thoughts of worthlessness, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, excessive feelings of guilt, and a decreased sex drive. These feelings can often become a huge burden, and make relationships and work difficult to tackle.

The feelings of depression may get so severe that sufferers of SAD contemplate suicide. If this happens, it is necessary to seek help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached toll-free at 1-800-273-8255. Additionally, United Way has recently begun a local non-emergency 211 helpline that helps to direct residents of Winnebago and Ogle counties to a number of local resources, including mental health resources.

Treatment options for SAD include full-spectrum light therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and certain medications. Light therapy works by exposing the SAD sufferer to 30 to 90 minutes of full-spectrum light in the morning to replace the sunlight they are missing. Cognitive behavioral therapy works by recognizing and changing some of the underlying thoughts, feelings and behaviors that may be contributing to the depression. Medications that may be prescribed by a doctor include any of several antidepressants.

If you feel you are experiencing symptoms of SAD, talk to your family physician. The two of you can discuss diagnosis, lifestyle changes and potential treatment. If you or anyone you know are having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or 211 in Winnebago or Ogle counties.

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From the Feb. 13-19, 2013, issue

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