What is seasonal affective disorder?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

My wife gets down in the dumps every winter. It begins in the fall and hits its peak sometime in January or February. She thinks it’s just because the cheer of the holidays has passed, but I think it’s more than that. Could it be seasonal depression?

DEAR READER:

It’s not impossible that your wife has a case of the “winter blahs,” as she insists. The holiday season can be exhausting. Plus, you eat too much, and if you’re like me, the rich food and the added pounds make you feel tired.

But I agree with you that your wife also could be suffering from what is called seasonal affective disorder. The condition is often referred to as SAD for short, and it’s an apt nickname. SAD is better known as winter depression.

Winter depression is most prevalent where winter is coldest and the days are shortest. That’s in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere and the southern part of the Southern Hemisphere. At the start of winter in St. Petersburg, Russia, or in Patagonia (Argentina), there is sunlight for only a few hours a day.

We don’t understand why it is that, in susceptible people, the shorter days of winter bring on winter depression. But they do.

Like other forms of depression, winter depression can leave a person feeling sad, lethargic and exhausted. Someone with SAD may lose interest in people and activities that usually bring happiness. They often oversleep and overeat. And they don’t enjoy doing either.

SAD symptoms usually show up every year. They start gradually in the late fall. Then they build up during the winter months. The progression of your wife’s depression fits this arc very well.

What can she do about it? Even without treatment, winter depression usually melts away in the spring. But it can leave a person with SAD overweight, out of shape and with strained relationships.

Fortunately, treatment can help. Only one drug, bupropion (Wellbutrin), is specifically approved for SAD. SSRIs (medications in the Prozac family) and other antidepressants are also effective. A healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, a good diet and a strong social network, can also help.

Another treatment option is light therapy. This therapy aims to artificially replace the daylight hours many of us lose in the wintertime. And it does help, especially when the supplemental artificial lights are turned on in the early morning to simulate an early sunrise.

Ask your doctor about special devices that may be covered by insurance and about prescription medication. In my mind, the success of light therapy is the strongest evidence that it’s the shorter days (not the cold weather) that brings on SAD.

When SAD strikes, medication, lifestyle changes and light can lift the dark cloud of depression.

We have more information on dealing with depression in our Special Health Report, “Understanding Depression.”

Related Information: Understanding Depression