Fall slump. The winter blahs. Is it almost spring?
Weather can have an impact on our daily mood and feelings. For some people, too many gray days can cause a case of “the blues.”
Factors other than weather also can bring on seasonal depression. For example, in the holiday and post-holiday months, financial debt, too many commitments, weight gain, and/or broken resolutions can lead to “winter depression.” A severe form of winter depression is commonly called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
If this sounds like you, you aren’t alone: around 11 million Americans suffer from SAD. Additionally, up to four times as many women suffer from winter depression or SAD as men; and those living in Canada and the northern United States are up to eight times more likely to suffer from SAD than people living in the southern U.S. where the sun shines more in the winter months.
Sufferers may exhibit symptoms commonly associated with depression including:
- Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness
- Thoughts of suicide or suicidal actions
- Loss of interest in activities
- Withdrawal from social interaction
- Sleep and appetite problems
- Difficulty with concentrating and making decisions
- Decreased sex drive
- Lack of energy
Treating Winter Depression
Depression treatments can vary. However, according to the Yale School of Medicine, one of the unique ways SAD is treated is through the use of a lightbox, where exposure to a “10,000 lux light box for 30 to 45 minutes” is given at a consistent time each morning. Some folks call this a “happy light.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, “light therapy mimics natural outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood.” The Mayo Clinic urges people to work with their doctors on the type of lightbox to use, the length of time to use it, and the time of day when it would be most effective for you.
Additionally, some changes in your environment can help. The Mayo Clinic suggests:
- Make your home, work and other places brighter. Natural light can help – so open the curtains and sit closer to the window.
- Get into the Great Outdoors. Even if it is cold, a quick morning walk can help improve your mood throughout the day. If it is warm enough, consider sitting outside (even on cloudy days!).
- Get moving. Regular exercise and physical activity help alleviate anxiety and stress.
Finding the Right Medication
Another method of treating SAD and winter depression is traditional antidepressants. Finding the right medication that will work for you can be a long and frustrating process, as nearly half of patients “diagnosed with major depressive disorder will experience a recurrent or chronic course of illness for which long-term treatment is recommended.” Doctors often go through a lengthy trial-and-error process to find the right medication.
Pharmacogenomics is changing this process. Pharmacogenomics uses the unique genetic composition of people to see how they may respond to certain types of antidepressants – whether they might benefit from certain medication and how quickly they are likely to metabolize the medication.
GeneSight, the leading pharmacogenomic test, has been used by more than 23,000 clinicians to help guide treatment for more than 650,000 patients. In fact, patients whose treatment was guided by the GeneSight test experienced 70% greater improvement in depressive symptoms versus treatment as usual.
Winter depression doesn’t have to keep you indoors and isolated. Consider a happy light, open your curtains, and check with your healthcare provider to see if the GeneSight test is right for you. For more information about winter depression and SAD, please see our infographic here.