Seasonal Affective Disorder

Winter weather brings excitement to many people who scheduled holiday festivities and trips to the countryside ski lodges. However, for some, the shorter days lead to feelings that closely mimic depression and can result in losing interest in activities that used to bring them joy. In some cases, the “winter time blues” may be something more serious called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

Depression and SAD are very similar in their symptoms. However, a person with SAD feels good during the summer and then develops symptoms in the late fall. This disorder can cause you to feel depressed, irritable, distracted and may cause you to avoid social events that you typically would enjoy. Often, people will brush off these symptoms of SAD by saying that they are just going into “hibernation” and want to sleep more (and eat more, too).

A true case of SAD will resolve on its own as the days get longer in the spring, but there is no reason to suffer throughout the winter. If you have any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor to assist you with making the correct diagnosis (sometimes hormonal problems can be the cause) and to guide you to a proper treatment.

Treating SAD can and should be done with a whole mind and body and environmental approach. The main theory behind the cause of this disorder is that as the days grow shorter, and there’s a lack of light, it can cause changes in a person’s brain chemistry. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin and melatonin may not be regulated as well as in the summer and factors like Vitamin D are often decreased. It is not exactly known why some people are affected more than others; however, studies show that people who live farther from the equator have higher rates of SAD. In addition, the disorder’s symptoms can make the disorder worse by the isolation that people may self-impose when affected.

As in most disorders the best treatment is prevention and this can’t be truer than for SAD. Ensuring adequate exposure to light is critical, even if it’s not natural light, and there are a couple of ways to achieve this. Just by keeping a desk light on while at work or turning on a few extra lights throughout the house in the evening may be all that you need to avoid winter blues. However, light therapy (phototherapy) is the first-line, non-medical treatment for SAD. With light therapy you are exposed to bright light (20-30 times brighter than an average light bulb) for 30 minutes a day and results are often seen within a few days. While light therapy has very few risks, you should talk with your doctor before starting treatment and also make sure to get a high-quality light therapy box.

If the symptoms are severe and have a negative impact on your quality of life, then medications are often used to treat these episodes. Your doctor will first ensure that you have no underlying medical issue that needs to be treated, such as an underactive thyroid. Antidepressants that are commonly used for depression are used for treating SAD. Often it takes a couple of weeks for the medication to take effect, so be patient and talk with your doctor if you have concerns. If medications solve the problem, then you could restart them the following year prior to having symptoms. Your doctor may often suggest counselling or therapy as well to help understand patterns of your mood and coping strategies.

For a healthy mind, you need a healthy body to support it. It is important to stay active. Exercising for 30 minutes a day will boost endorphins and decrease the toll of stress on your mind. Organizing physical activity with friends can help motivate you to get out of the house when you’d rather stay under the comforter. As difficult as it may be during the holidays, it is important to eat a balanced diet, as well.

If you think you have these symptoms, you are not alone. All it takes is a simple visit with your doctor to ensure that you can truly have a Happy Holiday and a Healthy New Year!

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