Short Winter Days Impact Mood

Gray skies and early darkness have a way of making us grumpy. But for some it becomes a condition known as seasonal affective disorder.

Dr. Taylor Porter, a psychiatrist at Stormont-Vail West, says people with SAD are sensitive to the changes in the amount of daylight winter brings. He says, as the days shorten, these people experience worsening mood, and they get into a period of depression in winter and come out of it in summer and spring.

Mental health experts believe SAD may have to do with melatonin, a sleep-related hormone produced at increased levels in the dark. That's coupled with how shortened days change the body's natural circadian rhythm. Dr. Porter says instead of adjusting to the changes, it triggers a depressive episode.

Unlike therapy and medications used for traditional depression, treating SAD can be as easy as seeing the light! Dr. Porter says there are special frequency lights that replicate sunlight. People with SAD expose themselves to the light for a period of time to alleviate symptoms.

Like any depression, people must recognize when it's time to get help. Dr. Porter says if it's to the point you can't function, can't work, or can't interact as you normally would, you should seek help.

More on Seasonal Affective Disorder
National Mental Health Association

Seasonal Affective Disorder
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Some people suffer from symptoms of depression during the winter months, with symptoms subsiding during the spring and summer months. This may be a sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a mood disorder associated with depression episodes and related to seasonal variations of light.

Fact Sheet Index

SAD was first noted before 1845, but was not officially named until the early 1980’s. As sunlight has affected the seasonal activities of animals (i.e., reproductive cycles and hibernation), SAD may be an effect of this seasonal light variation in humans. As seasons change, there is a shift in our “biological internal clocks” or circadian rhythm, due partly to these changes in sunlight patterns. This can cause our biological clocks to be out of “step” with our daily schedules. The most difficult months for SAD sufferers are January and February, and younger persons and women are at higher risk.
Symptoms Include:

Regularly occurring symptoms of depression (excessive eating and sleeping, weight gain) during the fall or winter months.
Full remission from depression occur in the spring and summer months.
Symptoms have occurred in the past two years, with no nonseasonal depression episodes.
Seasonal episodes substantially outnumber nonseasonal depression episodes.
A craving for sugary and/or starchy foods.

Possible Cause of this Disorder

Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, has been linked to SAD. This hormone, which may cause symptoms of depression, is produced at increased levels in the dark. Therefore, when the days are shorter and darker the production of this hormone increases.


Phototherapy or bright light therapy has been shown to suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin. Although, there have been no research findings to definitely link this therapy with an antidepressant effect, many people respond to this treatment. The device most often used today is a bank of white fluorescent lights on a metal reflector and shield with a plastic screen. For mild symptoms, spending time outdoors during the day or arranging homes and workplaces to receive more sunlight may be helpful. One study found that an hour’s walk in winter sunlight was as effective as two and a half hours under bright artificial light.

If phototherapy doesn’t work, an antidepressant drug may prove effective in reducing or eliminating SAD symptoms, but there may be unwanted side effects to consider. Discuss your symptoms thoroughly with your family doctor and/or mental health professional.

For More Information:

Contact your local Mental Health Association, community mental health center, or:

National Mental Health Association
2001 N. Beauregard Street, 12th Floor
Alexandria, VA 22311
Phone 703/684-7722
Fax 703/684-5968
Mental Health Resource Center 800/969-NMHA
TTY Line 800/433-5959

Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythm
P.O. Box 591687
174 Cook Street
San Francisco, CA 94159-1687

Sources: The Harvard Mental Health Letter - February 1993.

631 SW Commerce Pl. Topeka, Kansas 66615 phone: 785-272-6397 fax: 785-272-1363 email:
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