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 fasting. It's harder to get out of bed, and
when you do, your mood resembles the landscape you see -- cold, dark, and
Most people have felt sad or depressed at times. Feeling depressed can be a normal reaction to loss, life's struggles, or an injured self-esteem.
But when feelings of intense sadness -- including feeling helpless, hopeless, and worthless -- last for many days to weeks and keep you from functioning normally, your depression may be something more than sadness. It may very well be clinical depression -- a treatable medical condition.
That's the problem: The gloom caused by Mother Nature each
winter in much of the country is biologically felt to some degree by an
estimated one in four of us -- usually starting around October and then
magically ending by April with spring's thaw. For most people, it manifests as
winter doldrums, the "I-can't-wait-for-winter-to-end" feeling that
produce mild but manageable sluggishness and food cravings. But about 11
million Americans have a more severe form of winter depression -- seasonal affective
disorder, the aptly acronymed SAD that is typically diagnosed after at least
two consecutive years of more intense symptoms.
"While a person with winter doldrums may have difficulty
waking up or getting out of bed at times, someone with seasonal affective
disorder can't get to work on time," says Michael Terman, PhD,
director of the Winter Depression Program at New York Psychiatric Institute and
Columbia University Medical Center. "With the doldrums, it's in the norm to
gain up to 5 or 6 pounds over the winter, but with full-blown SAD, weight gain can be far more than
Either way, it stems from the same cause: Sensitivity to the
lack of sunlight that results from winter's "shorter" days and disrupts
our circadian rhythm, or internal body clock. The degree of this sensitivity,
and resulting winter depression severity, largely stems from some combination
of other factors -- your geography, genetics, and individual brain
With SAD, the lack of sunlight causes the brain to work
overtime producing melatonin, the hormone that regulates your body clock and
sleep patterns and a hormone that has been linked to depression. That's why all
things considered, the farther north from the equator you live, the greater the
risk you'll have some degree of winter depression. Only about 1% of Florida
residents have some winter-specific discomfort or depression, compared to about
half of those living in uppermost parts of the U.S. or in southern Canada.
"The body clock takes its cue from sunlight, especially
that in the morning. But as you get up into the northern-tier states, there's a
4½ hour delay in sunrise in mid-winter versus the summer"; in the middle
portion of the U.S., there's a two-hour difference," Terman tells WebMD.
"This difference is enough to affect circadian rhythm timing and throw the
body clock out of sync."