Are the 'winter blues' real?
January in the UK is cold, dark and wet. I often feel miserable when I notice that it’s already dark outside at 4pm, and I wonder what it would be like to live in the far north where there is even less daylight these days. I think I would probably consider myself as someone who is affected by ‘winter blues’. This made me wonder - is this seasonal effect on mood a scientific phenomenon, or is it just an urban myth? This week we asked 4 experts in neuroscience and psychiatry, ‘Are the winter blues real?’, here is what they said…
Are the 'winter blues' real?
What are the winter blues?
Dr Timo Partonen, a psychiatrist from Helsinki University in Finland, says “The human tendency to experience seasonal changes in mood and behaviour, also known as seasonality, is manifested to a different degree in individuals, ranging from the pathological end of this spectrum, namely patients with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), through the mildly pathological to the normal seasonality with no problem.”
SAD is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. Dr Partonen says “A majority of patients with winter SAD develop, in addition to depressed or irritable mood, prolonged but unrefreshing sleep and subsequent daytime tiredness, increased appetite, weight gain, and carbohydrate craving during the winter months. Social and occupational difficulties are common. A minority of patients report of eating less, sleeping less, and losing weight.”
Most people consider ‘winter blues’ as being a less severe form of SAD, Dr Partonen describes winter blues as having “similar but milder symptoms that do not impair functioning to a major degree, so that individuals are healthy but suffer from symptoms to some extent.”
What is the evidence that SAD and winter blues exist?
SAD is a clinically recognised type of depression. Professor Tim Jacob, a neuroscience expert from Cardiff University in the UK, says “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is now recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, the NHS and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a major depressive disorder that occurs at a specific time of year”. He goes on to say “Rosenthal and his team first described SAD in 1984 and subsequently nearly 40 years of data have been accumulated the vast majority of which supports the existence of SAD.” Rosenthal’s initial study described 29 patients who suffered a form of depression that changed based on the climate.
Epidemiological studies have looked at whether SAD exists and how many people are affected by it. A 2019 study showed that anti-depressants are prescribed in the UK more often in the winter as compared to the spring and summer months. A recent study this month in Austria looked at hospitalisations as a result of depressive episodes and found seasonal patterns, less admissions occurred in the summer months. However, not all studies agree, and these kinds of studies can be complicated by confounding factors, for example seasonal events or holidays such as Christmas can affect rates of depression and other psychiatric disorders.
As ‘winter blues’ is based on a change of emotion rather than a psychiatric disorder, it is more difficult to study than SAD. Nevertheless, it is likely that many more people suffer from ‘winter blues’ as compared to SAD. In the USA, SAD is predicted to affect 6% of the population, whilst an additional 14% may experience winter blues.
What causes seasonal mood changes?
There is no consensus on why some people’s moods are affected by the seasons. One theory is that shorter daylight hours changes our internal body clocks and disrupts hormone levels, which in turn affect our mood. Another theory suggests that reduced sunlight impacts the body’s production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood.
What can help with winter blues?
Rosenthal advocates the use of light therapy, along with talking therapies, antidepressants, good diet and exercise to help with SAD. Apart from light therapy, these other remedies are commonly used to treat many forms of depression. Light therapy involves sitting in front of a very bright light for a few minutes each day. There is mixed evidence that light therapy is effective against SAD, but in some patients it clearly improved their symptoms in the short term.
It's likely that many people are affected by winter blues. Just like with any kind of low mood, getting some exercise or talking to a friend may help.
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