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Depression Health Center

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Questions and Answers About Winter Depression

If your mood gets worse as the weather gets chillier and the days get shorter, you may have "winter depression." Here, questions to ask your doctor if winter is the saddest season for you.

Why do I seem to get so gloomy each winter, or sometimes beginning in the fall?

You may have what's called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. The condition is marked by the onset of depression during the late fall and early winter months, when less natural sunlight is available. It's thought to occur when daily body rhythms become out-of-sync because of the reduced sunlight.

Some people have depression year round that gets worse in the winter; others have SAD alone, struggling with low moods only in the cooler, darker months. (In a much smaller group of people, the depression occurs in the summer months.)

SAD affects up to 3% of the U.S. population, or about 9 million people, some experts say, and countless others have milder forms of the winter doldrums.

So this worsening of mood in the fall and winter is not just my imagination?

Not at all. This "winter depression" was first identified by a team of researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health in 1984. They found this tendency to have seasonal mood and behavior changes occurs in different degrees, sometimes with mild changes and other times severe mood shifts.

Symptoms of SAD can include:

  • Sleeping too much
  • Experiencing fatigue in the daytime
  • Gaining weight
  • Having decreased interest in social activities and sex

SAD is more common for residents in northern latitudes. It's less likely in Florida, for instance, than in New Hampshire. Women are more likely than men to suffer, perhaps because of hormonal factors. In women, SAD becomes less common after menopause.

Should I increase the dose of antidepressant I am taking?

An increase in medication may help, but consult your doctor about it. Don't increase the dose on your own; instead ask your doctor to evaluate your condition and tell you if you need more medication, or perhaps a different antidepressant.

Taking medication in the autumn, before the mood declines, may help, according to research published in Biological Psychiatry. In three different studies, patients who had SAD who got antidepressants beginning in the fall were less likely to get recurrent depression in the winter compared to those who got placebo beginning in autumn.

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