Seasonal Depression: Beating Winter Sadness and Moodiness

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Now that the Christmas tree is composting and radio stations have shelved that cheery holiday music until next winter, let’s get real with some rewriting: ‘Tis the season to be melancholy.

You know the feeling: You’re more tired these days, maybe anxious or moody. Cocooning with some leftover Christmas cookies or other sweet and high-carb fare sounds better than hanging with the crowd. Your sexual appetite may be on a diet, or even food cravings. But about 11 million Americans have a more severe form of winter depression — brain to work overtime producing melatonin, the hormone that regulates your body clock and sleep patterns and a hormone that has been linked to breakfast or work.

Terman has also done research suggesting that ions in the air — those invisible particles that can help improve mood — also affect winter depression. When SAD patients were exposed to high levels of negative ions for 30 minutes, their depression eased after just a few weeks. “Natural concentrations of negative ions are highest at the seashore, by the pounding surf, or right after a spring thunderstorm,” he says. “That’s why many people report a spontaneous elevation in mood from being at the beach.” While commercially sold negative ionizers produce lower levels than what he used in his experiments, they may help some people.

Antidepressants are also beneficial, especially when used in conjunction with light therapy. “But my reading is that antidepressants by themselves are not as effective as light therapy by itself,” says Kripke. He notes in a 1998 study that light therapy brought relief to many patients within one week, while antidepressants took about eight weeks.

In addition to sunlight — or more specifically, the lack of it — the cold temperatures of this mean season may also play a role. “There is some evidence that people with a higher tolerance to cold tend to be less depressed than those who are more susceptible to cold,” says Charles Raison, MD, of Emory University’s Mind-Body Program and an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at its medical school.

“We also know there’s a greater tendency toward depressive symptoms immediately following a viral illness,” he tells WebMD. “When you get a cold, your immune system is stirred up in a way that it’s a risk factor for depression.” And you’ll note, it is the cold and flu season.

So if you’ve got the winter blues — especially in a deep shade — here’s your excuse to cash in those frequent flyer miles: “Sometimes, something as simple as taking a week or two vacation to Florida or somewhere sunny during January or February can make a really big difference,” says Raison.