Q. I get the winter blues every year. I was wondering how many people suffer the way I do.

A. The medical term for winter depression is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Symptoms usually begin in late fall or early winter and go away by summer. A less common type of depression occurs in the summer. SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and a lack of sunlight in winter.

About a half a million people in the USA get depressed in winter. Depressions are usually mild to moderate, but they can be severe. Most people with SAD don’t feel fully back to normal until early May.

People who work inside buildings with few windows can suffer SAD symptoms all year. Some feel mood changes during any long stretch of cloudy weather. Some evidence suggests that the farther someone lives from the equator, the more likely they are to develop SAD.

The disorder usually starts in people older than 20. The risk of SAD decreases as adults age. SAD is more common in women than in men. Winter-onset SAD is more common in northern regions that have severe winters.

Common symptoms of winter-onset SAD include: loss of interest in pleasurable activities, withdrawal from social situations, a craving for sweet or starchy foods, oversleeping, fatigue, weight gain, irritability, difficulty concentrating and anxiety.

Common symptoms of summer-onset SAD include: loss of appetite and weight, insomnia, irritability, increased sex drive and anxiety.

Both forms of the seasonal disorder may also include some of the symptoms that are present in other forms of depression, such as guilt, hopelessness and physical pains.

SAD is treated with light therapy, medicines, diet changes and stress management techniques. Probably the best way to beat the winter blues is to leave the north — if you can — and head to a sunnier region during the dark, cold days.

When you use light for SAD therapy, you either sit in front of a special fluorescent light box or wear a lighted visor for about a half-hour every day throughout the fall and winter. Light therapy can produce relief within days. Antidepressants with light may also help. So can psychotherapy.

SAD can be battled with self-help techniques, too:

  • Make your environment sunnier by opening blinds, adding skylights and trimming tree branches that block sunlight.
  • Sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office.
  • Spend more time outdoors. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light helps.
  • Exercise. Physical exercise relieves stress and anxiety; both can increase SAD symptoms. Exercise makes you feel happier, too, because you develop a better self-image.

There are some alternative remedies that are used for SAD. Don’t use any of them without consulting a doctor. These substances may interfere with prescription medications that you take. Here are some of the remedies:

  • St. John's wort. This herb has traditionally been used to treat a variety of problems, including depression. 
  • SAMe. This is a synthetic form of a chemical that occurs naturally in the body.  SAMe has been used in Europe, where it has been available by prescription since 1975, to treat arthritis and depression. It has been available in the United States as a supplement under the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act since 1999. 
  • Melatonin. This natural hormone helps regulate mood. A change in the season may change the level of melatonin in your body. 
  • Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements have been shown to relieve depression symptoms in some studies. 

Mind-body therapies that may help relieve depression symptoms include acupuncture, yoga, meditation, guided imagery and massage.

Cicetti is a health care writer with 50 years of journalistic experience.

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