Do you have the winter blues, lack energy, need more sleep, feel depressed? SAD, seasonal affect disorder, affects 5% of Americans and develops from late fall through the beginning of spring. Symptoms include: depression, anxiety, increased sleep, cravings for carbohydrates, weight gain and lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities.
SAD is diagnosed
- when a patient experiences depression and other symptoms for at least two consecutive years during the same season;
- when the depression ends simultaneously with the end of the season;
- when no other explanation exists to clarify the change in behavior or mood during that season.
The exact causes of SAD are unknown, but the condition is considered a subtype of depression or bipolar disorder and can be reimbursed by insurance companies. It is not something to ignore. Theories explaining SAD include:
- circadian rhythm, your biological clock—low levels of sunlight during fall and winter months could alter your biological clock which controls sleep and wake cycles. With the clock off kilter, you feel irritated, depressed.
- melatonin, a hormone produced by the brain during the hours of darkness, helps regulate sleep, body temperature and release of other hormones. People with SAD are producing too much melatonin, related to the increase of darkness in the winter months.
- serotonin, another brain chemical or neurotransmitter, greatly affects mood. Low levels of serotonin might also be related to limited hours of sunlight.
Therapist, Jane Rider, ACS LIS, states that lack of sunlight is the major contributor to the condition. “When you have sunlight flooding your windows or your body, even if it is bitterly cold outside, it gives you positive emotional feelings. It’s a seasonal and cyclical problem.”
Rider emphasizes that SAD is treatable and should be addressed before more serious health issues, like substance abuse and suicidal thoughts, can develop.
People more at risk for SAD include:
- women (note: when men have SAD their symptoms are often more severe)
- people living far from the equator, either north or south
- people with a familial history of other types of depression
- people who have a clinical history of depression or bipolar disorder
Prevention is key to dealing with SAD.
Travel to a sunny climate sometime during the winter season if at all possible.
Get out and be with other people—it helps power through low moments.
Exercise—it’s critical, increasing endorphins that lift mood.
Read gardening books, take care of indoor plants or purchase flowers to increase positive thinking.
Use candlelight or fireplace fires to bring a different kind of light into your life.
When relaxing, drink green tea and push away toxic thoughts. Hitting the couch for long periods of time with unhealthy food like chips will worsen your condition and may prolong it.
Open shades daily; trim bushes and trees at windows; sit near bright windows whenever possible.
Walk or sit outside even when it’s cloudy as outdoor light helps—especially if it’s morning light that you get within 2 hours of waking.
Try mind-body therapies: acupuncture, yoga, meditation, massage therapy.
Manage your stress by getting out and doing things to help others.
Eat healthy meals at regular times and don’t use alcohol to blunt sensation.
Follow your doctor’s orders if you are prescribed antidepressants, light therapy (see below) or psychotherapy.
These suggestions won’t absolutely prevent the disorder, but they will help you ease the symptoms. It’s best to begin treatment for your symptoms before they would normally start and continue treatment past the time they would normally end. Getting control of your symptoms before they get control of you might just put a smile on your face and a lift in your step so you can banish those winter blues.
Though light therapy is the first line treatment for SAD and you can get a phototherapy light without a prescription: talk to you doctor first! For 30 minutes of therapy, the light should be 10,000 lux, (lux being the measurement of light intensity). A 5,000 lux light would require 60 minutes of therapy. Sitting in a range of 12-18 inches from the light source, eyes have to be open so light reaches the retina in the back of the eye. Side effects include headaches and eyestrain, and if therapy is done too late in the day, insomnia can occur. You’ll fight the winter blues and SAD by educating yourself and, if necessary, seeing your doctor.