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Seasonal mood change affects more than 10% of New England residents. Here’s how to cope

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that comes with the change of seasons every year, with symptoms lasting about 4 to 5 months. Some researchers believe that the shorter days change our circadian rhythms that regulate when we sleep, eat and hormones. The rhythms also control the clock in the brain, which responds to light and dark signals from the eyes.
Alvaro Barrientos
/
AP
Estimates are that more than 10% of people in New England are negatively impacted by winter's lack of sunlight.

Feeling a change in mood when winter hits is extremely common. According to The Winter Depression Research Clinic at Yale, roughly 90% of people surveyed reported a change in energy, sleep and appetite.

But for at least 3% to 5% of the nation’s population, those “winter blues” are actually Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which was first identified by Dr. Norman Rosenthal in 1984.

Those living in more northern latitudes are at greatest risk because of the shorter daylight hours in winter.

The director of the Winter Depression Research Clinic, Dr. Paul Desan, estimates another 10% of New Englanders’ are negatively impacted by winter and could benefit from light therapy.

“They wouldn't meet diagnostic criteria for an episode of major depression, but they have symptoms that they want help with,” he said that’s called ‘subsyndromal SAD’.

Dr. Desan said a person should seek medical help if they are withdrawing from activities, feeling a loss of enjoyment, or experiencing changes in sleep or appetite.

Health providers in the region say it’s important to pay attention to these changes in mood that can coincide with winter.

“It's definitely very under-diagnosed, because of the fact that a lot of different things happen besides the light change,” says Physician Assistant Theresa Keddy with ProHealth Physicians.

During the holiday season, people could be dealing with general stressors which impact their mood.

“It's the pattern that matters,” Keddy said, “That the onset happens at the same time each year.”

Treatments:

Dr. Desan said “it's well established by research, the majority of people with seasonal affective disorder” will get better by using bright light therapy.

The device must provide at least 10,000 Lux of bright light, “which is like being outside in July,” he said.

Participants respond best when they are exposed to the light for 30 minutes before 8 A.M.

The Winter Depression Research Clinic tested several different light therapy boxes and compiled a list of those which meet standards of the medical community.

The Clinic says anyone over 65 should consult with an eye doctor before beginning light therapy, because the lights can pose a risk for anyone with an eye disease such as macular degeneration.

Other treatment options include antidepressant medication and cognitive behavioral therapy, but Dr. Desan advises against certain supplements.

“There was one therapeutic trial of vitamin D. It didn't help patients at all,” Dr. Desan said.

The Gender Difference:

While it’s not known why some people are more affected by the arrival of winter than others, Dr. Desan said it does appear gender has something to do with it.

“Women outnumber men about three times to one in seasonal affective disorder and subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder,” he said. “It's also striking that women who have seasonal affective disorder are more likely to have premenstrual mood changes. So there's clearly some connection with the underlying chemistry of the brain.”

But Dr. Desan warned that there are many factors that can impact a person’s mental health, so he always recommends not trying to self-diagnose and instead seek medical help.

Jennifer Ahrens is a producer for Morning Edition. She spent 20+ years producing TV shows for CNN and ESPN. She joined Connecticut Public Media because it lets her report on her two passions, nature and animals.