Been thinking about warmer climates lately? Planning a trip to the beach for spring break? You’re not alone. Minnesota is known for its harsh winters and this one has been especially hard. One of the reasons for your desire to head south may have to do with the body’s natural yearning for daylight to brighten your mood.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), sometimes referred to as the “winter blues,” is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year and usually resolves with the next change of season. SAD is seen more often in northern latitudes and occurs more frequently in women than in men. The exact cause of SAD is not known, but it has been linked to genetics, age, and your body’s natural chemical makeup. The most common factors associated with SAD include:

Your biological clock or circadian rhythm: As the days get shorter in the fall and winter, exposure to sunlight is reduced and may disrupt your internal clock
Melatonin levels: The change in season can disrupt natural levels of this hormone which can lead to changes in sleep patterns and mood.
Serotonin levels: Serotonin is another chemical in the brain that affects mood. Decreased sunlight can cause serotonin levels to drop leading to the experience of SAD.

Common Symptoms Include:

• Depressed mood
• Anxiety
• Loss of energy
• Social withdrawal
• Oversleeping
• Loss of interest in usual activities
• Increased cravings for carbohydrates
• Weight gain
• Difficulty concentrating

Treatment for SAD ranges from natural remedies to prescription medication and psychotherapy. Light therapy or phototherapy is one natural option. Light therapy involves the use of a light box which produces a high-intensity light that mimics outdoor light and appears to change melatonin and serotonin levels in the brain. Use of a light box needs to be individually tailored depending on the severity of one’s symptoms and other factors that should be addressed with your healthcare provider before starting this treatment. Although light therapy is generally considered safe, it can pose dangers for those with retinal disorders or in those taking medications that can cause sensitivity to light.

Other natural therapies include the use of certain herbal supplements. Although you do not need a prescription for these substances, it is still important to consult your healthcare provider before using them, especially if you are already taking other medications. In some cases, you and your healthcare provider may decide to use an antidepressant. Psychotherapy is also an effective treatment option. Although SAD is thought to be related to biochemical changes, your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors affect your mood. Psychotherapy can help you identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors and significantly improve your overall state of health.

Conquering the “Winter Blues”

Make your environment sunnier and brighter. Open your blinds, add skylights, sit closer to bright windows in your home and office.
Get outside. Take a long walk or simply sit on a bench and soak up the sun, even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help.
Exercise regularly. Physical activity helps relieve stress and anxiety which can increase your symptoms of SAD. Being more fit also improves self-esteem which can boost your mood.
Socialize. Make time to connect with people you enjoy being around. They can offer support and a shoulder to cry on or a joke to laugh at.
Take a trip. If possible, take a vacation in a warm sunny location.