Written by Dr. Cynthia Paulis Monday, 10 December 2012 00:00
Let’s face it, it’s been a tough couple of weeks. First the onslaught of Sandy and its aftermath of destruction, long cold nights without heat or power, then we got hammered by the nor’easter dumping a foot of snow on top of the damage, and now the holiday season is in full swing. If you feel more like the holiday Grinch you may not be alone. Who wouldn’t under these circumstances, but it is also possible you may just be suffering from SAD, seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder was first diagnosed in 1985 as a recognized medical problem. It is a depression that begins in the fall and lasts through the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. SAD has sometimes been referred to as winter depression, winter blues, or the hibernation reaction.
Seasonal affective disorder is four times more common in women than in men. Typically it begins when a person is in her 20s but teachers have been seeing this in some children and adolescents lately.
Classic symptoms of this syndrome include the following:
• Afternoon slumps with decreased energy and concentration
• Increased appetite, craving more sweets and carbohydrates
• Weight gain
• Increased sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness
• Lack of energy and loss of interest in work and other activities
• Social withdrawal
• Feelings of depression, irritability, suicidal thoughts
• Difficulty concentrating and processing information
The causes of seasonal affective disorder are not known but thought to be linked to three factors: ambient light, body temperature, and hormonal regulation. People who suffer from SAD are affected the most when the temperature falls and the days become shorter and darker.
Researchers have found that bright lights will change the chemicals in the brain. When a person has less exposure to the sunlight, there are lower levels of vitamin D in the blood stream which seems to contribute to SAD.
Melatonin, which is a sleep-and-mood related hormone, is secreted in the pineal gland of the brain and has also been linked to SAD. This hormone, which has been linked to depression, is produced at increased levels in the dark. So when the days are shorter and darker, the production of melatonin increases.
Serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood is also linked to SAD. When sunlight is reduced there is a drop in serotonin which can lead to depression. As the days get shorter, our circadian rhythm becomes disrupted, leading to feelings of depression.
Three forms of treatment for SAD are light therapy, medications, and psychotherapy.
Light therapy has been one of the most successful forms of treatment for SAD either by getting out more in the sunlight during the day or adding a supplemental high quality light therapy box. Medications in the past have included Wellbutrin, Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac and Effexor. These drugs, sometimes in conjunction with psychotherapy, have helped in the past.
The most effective changes you make to combat SAD are simple changes. Make your environment sunnier and brighter. When working at home or in the office sit closer to bright windows and open the blinds and curtains, letting in more sunlight.
Get outside and take a long walk. Even on cold days outdoor light can help ward off SAD. Exercise regularly because physical exercise helps relieves stress and anxiety, both of which can increase SAD. The more physically fit you are, the better you feel about yourself, which can also lift your mood.
Foods can also affect your mood. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements have been found to relieve depression. Good sources of this include fatty cold water fish such as salmon, mackerel and herring. Flaxseed, flax oil and walnuts also contain omega-3 fatty acids along with soybean and canola oils.
These small changes can help with the holiday and winter blues and just think—-after Dec. 21 the days will start to get longer and soon summer will be here again. Happy holidays!