Beating the winter blues in time for the holidays

December 14, 2010 by  

(Photo by Steven Maisey)

It’s no surprise people gain weight during winter, especially because of the holidays. But if your weight gain is accompanied by negative feelings you could be suffering from SAD, seasonal affective disorder.

Ashiq Shah, Kwantlen psychology instructor, explained that SAD, which two to three per cent of Canadians are reported to have, is “not depression which we see in psychiatric patients, but it is something which is related to changes in the seasons and how our body responds to that.”

“Many of us notice [that we are] sleeping more or gaining weight because we eat excessively, or even feeling lethargic because the days become shorter and the evenings are [longer].”

A main factor is the lack of sunlight. People who are affected by SAD feel their mood change as the sun hides away for longer periods of time, usually at the beginning of autumn. It’s when spring rolls around that they start to feel better.

“Since there is less light, there is less availability of an important hormone in our body, a neurotransmitter that is [called] serotonin,” Shah said. According to, serotonin is “involved in sleep, depression, memory, and other neurological processes.”

“When its level declines, there are mood swings so people feel gloomy and depressed,” said Shah. “This is a general body reaction to these seasonal changes. There are individual defences to that. This means that not everybody feels gloomy. There are some people who are more affected by that, depending on the level of their neurotransmitters or hormones in their body.”

Lethargy also causes weight gain, because people tend to exercise less and eat more.

“When you feel lethargic you are less active,” said Shah. “Mostly people are confined at home because there is less opportunity, or the weather is not suitable to go out or to be involved in activities. [If you're at] home, inside, than generally you are inclined to eat more and on top of that, when it is cold outside you feel you need more energy and therefore you eat more.”

How do you beat SAD?

Shah recommends exercising at least three to five days a week, if not daily. “Physical activity boosts the levels of serotonin, which is the key factor in SAD and also in depression.”

For severe cases of SAD, some patients are prescribed light.

“As the sunlight is less available the serotonin levels decline,” said Shah. “In the case of severe symptoms of SAD, a timed daily dose of intense light, daylight, is the recommended therapy. This is, however, controversial among the researchers. Some think it works [while] others think that its effect is like that of a placebo.”


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