Health Notes

That S.A.D. lingering feeling

By Amy McIntyre

For mild to moderate symptoms, try these

Even though spring is just around the corner, for some, the last months of winter seem unbearable. They’ve had enough of the frigid cold, short days and grey skies—particularly smog.

The “winter blues,” known clinically as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), affects about 6% of Americans. Symptoms, typically appearing in late autumn, can persist until spring or early summer.

“It’s almost like hibernating,” Dr. Jason Hunziker, division chief of adult psychiatry at the University of Utah Health, explains. “People tend to sleep a lot, they crave carbohydrates so they eat a lot more and gain weight, and they tend to isolate themselves.”

One of 10 Utahns are at risk of developing SAD. Due to our northern latitude, there is a shorter amount of daylight hours during the winter months—a major contributing factor.

Chances of depression increase as light exposure decreases, according to Hunziker.

Younger adults are at a higher risk of developing SAD and women are four times more likely to be diagnosed with SAD. Depression or bipolar disorder or a family history of depression also increase chances of a diagnosis. For those suffering from SAD, symptoms reoccur year after year and may peak during the winter solstice, when the daylight hours are shortest.

Despite the persistent pattern of the disorder, SAD often goes undiagnosed, dismissed as holiday stress. So people don’t seek help, and winter becomes the season of “blah’,’ when they’re just not functioning very well.

Here is some of Hunziker’s advice for mild to moderate cases:

  • Limit carbohydrates (sugars and flour, primarily).
  • Eat three well-balanced meals per day.
  • Vitamin D supplements may be beneficial. (Your body naturally produces this vitamin when your skin is exposed to the sun, but at our latitude, in winter, it is challenging to get enough vit. D from the sun.)
  • Exercise! Ten to 25 minutes per day is important to keep your body healthy and your natural endorphins up. There are plenty of exercises you can do at home, from push ups and sit ups to yoga, or even walking (or running!) up and down the stairs.
  • When the clouds do part and the air quality is favorable, head outside to spend some time in the sun.
  • Though not approved by the FDA to treat depression, there is good evidence that light therapy helps people with mild to moderate SAD. Light boxes and lamps designed specifically for individuals with SAD are widely available and can be effective with daily use of about 30 minutes per day. Dr. Hunziker says. (Length of time varies with intensity of the light array; read the instructions carefully.)
  • “Take two trips and call me in the springtime.” If you are particularly susceptible to SAD, Hunziker says you’ll have a much better chance of staying well if you can go to a sunnier place for even a weekend, twice during the winter months.

If your symptoms are severe, and not improving as the days lengthen, visit a health care provider. But if the blues are more of a “blah,” try Hunziker’s advice and see if the world starts getting brighter.


Amy McIntyre is a recent transplant to Salt Lake City from the East Coast. She is a freelance writer who has focused on science and medicine.

This article was originally published on January 31, 2019.