How Winter Affects Your Mental Health

Contributed by: Jyoti Sachdeva, MD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry 

MentalHealthDecember is here and that means winter and all that comes with it is here including a negative effect on your health. Winter is known to bring out a number of health problems, including colds, dry skin and eyes, lack of exercise and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD is a form of depression that’s related to changes in the seasons, with symptoms beginning and ending at about the same time of each year (November to March). It affects over 500,000 people in the U.S. and symptoms can mimic those of clinical depression. Anxiety, sadness, irritability, social withdrawal, fatigue and lack of concentration are all common SAD symptoms.

The exact cause of SAD isn’t known but some scientists think that certain hormones trigger mood-related changes at certain times of the year especially during the winter because there is less sunlight. Reduced exposure to sunlight can cause imbalances of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, which affect your mood.

During a recent study at the University of Copenhagen, scientists found that SAD may be caused by the serotonin transporter, or SERT, protein. Serotonin is a brain chemical responsible for maintaining mood balance. Scientists found that in winter, participants with SAD had 5% more SERT than in the summer, meaning more serotonin was being removed from their brains in winter, which can cause depression symptoms.

During the winter, it’s important to take extra care of yourself to avoid the chance of developing SAD.  Here are some things you can do to help keep SAD away:

  • Get sunlight whenever possible. Stepping outside or letting in sunlight through the window will increase your body’s serotonin levels, which balances your mood. Sunlight will also help brighten up the room, helping keep you more awake. 
  • Don’t cut exercise out of your daily routine. Colder weather forces many people inside and can lead to excuses for not exercising. By exercising a few times a week, you’ll help release endorphins, a hormone that gives you a natural high that in turn keeps you in a happier mood and energetic. 
  • Get plenty of rest. Sleeping seven to eight hours a night is needed to keep your mind and body regular. 
  • See a doctor if needed. If you experience changes in your mood, appetite, sleep habit or energy levels, visit a doctor to determine if you have SAD or if something else is going on. 

At the Women’s Center, we offer thorough diagnostic evaluations and individualized treatment plans for conditions such as SAD. We welcome female and male patients for treatment through our psychiatry and behavioral health treatment programs. To schedule an appointment, please call (513) 475-UC4U.

To learn more about symptoms and treatments for SAD and to take our quiz on SAD, click here.

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