What’s the Difference Between the ‘Winter Blues’ & Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

In locations with colder climates, many experience a sense of sluggishness once the days start getting shorter. They might feel lethargic, sad, or less enthusiastic about doing the things they typically love. Some have it worse and experience a form of clinical depression. Here we look at the difference between the Winter Blues & Seasonal Affective Disorder; what they are, what the differences are and what you can do about SAD & Winter Blues.

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Is there a difference between Winter Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) & what are the symptoms of both?

In parts of the world that have colder climates, many people begin experiencing a sense of sluggishness once the days start getting shorter. They might feel lethargic, sad, or less enthusiastic about doing the things they typically love.

In most cases, it is nothing more than the “winter blues”, and it typically gets better after some time. However, some people suffer from a much more severe form of the winter blues, which is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a form of clinical depression that might require help from a medical professional.

So, how do you know if you have winter blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder? Here, we’ll discuss the symptoms of both conditions, what differentiates them, and some natural remedies to combat both winter blues and SAD.

What is the “winter blues”?

According to Dr. Matthew Rudorfer, a mental health expert at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), winter blues is not a medical condition. Its a general term used to describe the sluggishness that a lot of us feel during the colder months. He says that the winter blues can even be linked to the stress of the holiday seasons [1].

If you have the winter blues, here are some of the symptoms you might experience:

  • Feeling lethargic
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Trouble falling asleep
  • Missing family or loved ones

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What differentiates seasonal affective disorder from the winter blues?

Seasonal affective disorder is a form of clinical depression that is associated with seasonal changes, especially the shorter days and reduced sunlight exposure during the winter months.

Unlike the winter blues, which typically goes away relatively quickly, seasonal depression follows a regular pattern. People with SAD experience depressive episodes during the same timeframe each winter (in some rare cases, people suffer from SAD in the summer). The symptoms tend to disappear as the weather gets warmer, and they get more sun exposure.

The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are more severe than those associated with winter blues. Along with the winter blues symptoms, here are some additional ones people with SAD might experience [2]:

  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Restlessness
  • Changes in speech patterns
  • Fatigue
  • Increased pain sensation
  • Urge to avoid social contact
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Tearfulness
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Inability to perform daily tasks
  • Increase in appetite for starchy carbohydrates and sweets
  • Difficulty concentrating

Sometimes, it can be challenging to differentiate between general depression, the winter blues, and seasonal affecting disorder. To be diagnosed with SAD, you must meet the following criteria [3]:

  • Experience SAD symptoms during the same season for two years or more.
  • Your symptoms must not be present during any other season.
  • You must not have other external factors that might be contributing to your depression, such as seasonal unemployment, or being away from your loved ones.

Winter blues doesn’t require a medical diagnosis. If you’re not feeling your best because it’s cold, dark, and gloomy, you can say you have the winter blues.

However, seasonal affective disorder requires a medical diagnosis. A healthcare professional will do a physical and psychological evaluation, and they’ll ask about your history with symptoms of depression.

Winter blues are also a lot more common than SAD. In the UK, it is estimated that between 3 to 5 percent of the population experience seasonal depression. Around 12.5 percent are thought to have the winter blues [4].

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What are the causes of winter blues and seasonal affective disorder?

While there isn’t any conclusive evidence for what causes seasonal depression, there are a few potential factors that are thought to play a role.

Disruption of the biological clock – The circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock that regulates hormonal balance and the sleep-wake cycle. When you don’t get enough sunlight in the winter, your internal clock is disrupted, which could affect your sleep, mood, and other critical functions [5].

Drop in serotonin – Reduced sunlight, and consequently vitamin D, can affect the production of serotonin, the “happy hormone” in your body. Serotonin is associated with elevated mood levels, and a drop in serotonin might cause you to experience depression symptoms [6].

Vitamin D deficiency – Vitamin D plays a critical role in the synthesis of serotonin. When you don’t get enough sunlight in the winter, you might not get adequate vitamin D, and your mood and sense of well-being could be affected [7].

What are some of the treatments for seasonal depression and the winter blues?

If you have the winter blues, you most likely don’t need any formal treatment. Simple activities that you enjoy can help you feel better and reduce symptoms of winter blues. Consider things like exercise, spending time with your friends, watching your favorite movies and TV shows, or anything else that you think you’ll enjoy.

If you’re diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, you might be prescribed antidepressants like Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), which are drugs that make more serotonin available to your brain, which could improve your mood and reduce depression.

Besides antidepressants, several natural remedies can help with SAD symptoms. Some common treatments include bright light therapy (BLT) [8], cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) [9], yoga and meditation, and improving your diet to include more seafood and healthy fats.

Vitamin D supplementation can also improve how the brain functions, and potentially prevent or improve symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. There is mounting evidence that shows an established association between vitamin D deficiency and behavioral disorders like seasonal affective disorder. Research has shown that individuals with an optimal level of vitamin D have a lower risk of developing depression [10].

Note: We have recently published an excellent guide to fighting the winter blues where we discuss several natural SAD & winter blues remedies, including Vitamin D/K2. Check it out here.

Winter Blues & SAD: The Final Word

A mild case of the winter blues is generally not a cause for concern. However, if your symptoms are persistent, and you suspect it might be more than the winter blues, be sure to seek help. You can reach out to your friends and family, or reach out to a medical professional who can evaluate your condition.

If you are diagnosed with SAD, know that there is help available, both through conventional remedies and natural alternatives. And if you ever have thoughts about harming yourself, please call the suicide prevention hotline in your country immediately (800-273-TALK if you’re in the USA).

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Reference List:

  1. ^ https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2013/01/beat-winter-blues
  2. ^ https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651
  3. ^ https://www.aafp.org/afp/1998/0315/p1340.html
  4. ^ https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30282261
  5. ^ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2612129/
  6. ^ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27353308
  7. ^ https://www.healthline.com/health/depression-and-vitamin-d#connection
  8. ^ https://www.medscape.com/answers/286759-14788/what-is-the-role-of-bright-light-therapy-blt-in-the-treatment-of-seasonal-affective-disorder-sad
  9. ^ https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/cognitive-behavioral-therapy-for-depression
  10. ^ http://pharmrev.aspetjournals.org/content/69/2/80

Agnit is the lead writer for uVitals. As an avid health and fitness enthusiast, he is passionate about writing content that helps people take control of their health to live happier, more productive lives. Someday, he plans to listen to his own advice and drink less coffee.

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