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Three Undesirable Ways Fall, Winter May Affect You

With autumn in full swing, days are getting shorter. Along with shortened days are reduced periods of daylight, bringing forth a change in your mental state and behavior.

While some degree of the winter blues are normal due to the darkness and lower temperatures associated with the season, in some more severe cases those blues can evolve into full blown depression, professional psychologist with The Pennsylvania State University in Altoona William Balch said.

Seasonality is the degree to which mood and behaviors vary across the season, according to P.h.D. Professor and Acting Director of Clinical Training at the University of Vermont Kelly Rohan. Specifically during the fall and winter months, beginning typically in transition between the two seasons, the general population experiences some form of seasonality.

According to the Head of the Somatic Treatments Program at the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Matt Rudorfer, "15 to 25 percent of the population get some sort of symptoms from season change."

However, there are various forms of seasonality, ranging in severity and seriousness. Read below for the top three changes that occur within the human psyche during the transition between fall and winter.

3. Hibernation

Every year multiple species go into hibernation during the cold winter months and some researchers believe this seasonal behavior can be observed in people as well.

"People are imitating animals in hibernation in the wintertime," Rudorfer said.

In the hibernation process, animals gain weight then sleep a lot. These patterns are seen in humans during winter months too. During the transition into fall and winter, many similarities can be seen between animals and humans.

According to Rohan, during these transitional periods, people can experience more feelings of fatigue during the day, difficulties rising in the mornings if it's still dark outside, the necessity for more sleep and cravings for more carbohydrate-rich foods.

As a result of food cravings, some people tend to gain a few pounds.

While some of these behavioral changes during the transition to winter can be seen as detrimental, specialists believe these symptoms are normal during winter months as long as they are not interfering with daily life activities and quality of life.

2. Circadian Rhythm Regulation and Vitamin D Metabolism

These two conditions happen automatically within the body without the conscious mind being aware or having any sort of control.

Although these theories have not been fully proven yet, researchers are certain that the length of daylight is key in influencing our body's circadian rhythms. Daylight is thought to aid in provoking the release of the chemical melatonin, which helps the body determine when it is time to sleep.

"Melatonin gets distorted in the winter due to daylight," Rudorfer said. "A nine-to-five schedule overlooks the fact that Mother Nature changes her schedule during the year, getting up while it is still dark out tells us that human and nature are out of sync."

Another theory revolves around vitamin D metabolism, but this mechanism is not well understood, according to a researcher with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Shia Kent.

Kent explains to AccuWeather.com that Vitamin D is introduced into the body through diet or sunlight radiation, but recent research has linked the metabolism of vitamin D to cognitive functioning.

"Low vitamin D levels have been associated with dementia, Alzheimer's and stroke," Kent said. "It may also be related to vascular risk factors such as blood pressure, which may lead to cognitive effects."

Vitamin D metabolism processes have not yet been directly linked to seasonality. However, the combination of how Vitamin D is absorbed into the body and the conditions it is already linked to give researchers the notion that the vitamin's effects on seasonality could be profound. Further research is currently being conducted.

1. Seasonal Affective Disorder

As a fairly new disease, seasonal affective disorder, more commonly known as SAD, is classified by full-blown major depressive episodes that occur regularly in a seasonal change, usually the transition from fall into winter.

"People with SAD can often feel drowsy during the day," Kent said. The disorder is also much more common in women than men.

Unlike many other psychological disorders, SAD is unique due to the geographic patterns in which the most occurrences happen.

"A lot of research shows that as you change latitudes, the incidents of SAD increase as you go north," Rudorfer said.

For instance, in Florida the condition is rare, distressing only 1.5 percent of the population, but as you travel north, incidents can increase by a rate of seven times that, according to Rudorfer.

Some typical symptoms of the disorder include significant and impairing fatigue, sleeping more hours per day than usual, a weight gain of at least 5 percent, a pervasively sad mood, loss of interest in activities, difficulty concentrating, guilt that affects self-esteem and additional symptoms also associated with depression.

"Full-blown SAD involves symptoms that cause significant distress and the inability to function in important roles in the family, interpersonal, work and school environments," Rohan said.

Another striking difference between SAD in comparison to other mental disorders is the possibility of a cure without treatment. If the affected person does not receive treatment, their symptoms can dissolve on their own.

"If nothing is done for the whole season, when spring comes around by late spring/summer, they can be back to their normal selves, be quite energetic, much more functional and productive," Rudorfer said.

On the opposing side to the potential for a springtime cure, however, is that occasionally the disorder can bring a person into a manic state as spring brings forth more daylight.

"There is evidence of a manic state in the spring," Kent said. "It involves an increased state of arousal, perhaps leading to irritability, anxiety and other symptoms."

The main treatment for the disorder is light therapy, which involves the patient sitting in front of a specially made full-spectrum lightbulb or sunlamp once a day, until the winter months have passed. Other treatments can include cognitive behavioral therapy to attempt to reduce behavioral withdraw and negative thoughts, as well as the use of antidepressants.


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kristen Rodman at Kristen.Rodman@accuweather.com, follow her on Twitter @Accu_Kristen or Google+. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.