Family Health: Short winter days can be conditions for SAD

The holidays are over, the days are cold and dark, and there are months of gray days ahead before spring. It’s not surprising if you feel a little down.

For some people, winter brings more than an occasional bout of the blues. In fact, Missoula has textbook conditions for triggering a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. We’re far enough north to have long winters with very short days, and temperature inversions in the valley can take away even more sun.

This lack of light disrupts body levels of melatonin, a hormone that plays a role in both sleep patterns and mood. Short winter days may also cause a drop in the brain chemical serotonin, a change that can trigger depression in some people. Short days may also disrupt your body’s internal clock, putting you out of step with your daily schedule.

All this adds up to SAD for between 4 percent and 6 percent of people in the U.S. These people start feeling depressed in the fall and their symptoms last until days get longer in the spring. You may have this disorder if you:

  • Lose interest in activities you usually enjoy.
  • Withdraw from social situations.
  • Feel tired all the time.
  • Sleep significantly more than usual.
  • Have trouble concentrating.
  • Crave carbohydrates and sweets.
  • Gain weight.
  • Have headaches and other physical problems.

Since SAD is related to long periods of darkness, it’s not surprising that treatment involves adding light. One way to do that is to arrange your office or home so that you get light from a window during the day. It also helps to get outside, especially if the sun is shining. And exercise can help relieve SAD symptoms, whether it’s a walk, a hike or a session at the gym.

Doctors also may recommend phototherapy, in which you sit near a specially made light box (not a tanning bed) or wear a light visor on your head like a cap. These devices emit very bright, full-spectrum light while screening out harmful ultraviolet rays. Using them for specific time periods every day relieves SAD symptoms for many people.

Any kind of depression can be serious. If your symptoms make it hard to function at school, work or with your family, you should see your doctor. There are medications that can help with depression, or your doctor may refer you to a therapist. If you have thoughts of death or suicide, call a doctor right away.


Shawn Lake writes for Community Medical Center.