Seasonal Affective Disorder

It feels like fall outside today.  It’s breezy and much cooler, and I am starting to notice the shrinking daylight.  Maybe you are, too?  It may be a little harder to get out of bed in the morning, or you’re starting to crave more comforting foods.  The change may come up over night, and that heavy feeling starts settling in.  It’s natural for those of us who don’t live near the Equator to slow down as winter approaches.  We are mammals, after all, and the instinct to hibernate hasn’t completely left us.  Most people notice only minor changes in energy, mood or appetite as the cooler months set in, but for some, the effects are much stronger.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (also know as SAD, or winter depression) affects up to 5% of adults, and as many as 20% suffer from multiple symptoms of the disorder.  It typically starts in late September or early October, and improves in the spring.  The cause is uncertain, but may be due to lower levels of sunlight, which affects melatonin release and serotonin levels.  Common symptoms include fatigue, low mood or irritability, trouble concentrating, and low libido.  People with SAD tend to feel tired, unmotivated, and may start to avoid activities they usually enjoy.  The appetite may also increase, with a particular craving for carbs, and sufferers commonly gain weight.  If you notice many of these symptoms, and they are a significant change from your usual lifestyle, it’s important to discuss this with your doctor to see if you need treatment.

If your symptoms aren’t severe, there are many things you can do to help improve seasonal mood changes on your own:

1. Start your morning by turning on the lights as brightly as possible.  This will regulate the sleep/wake cycle, so your body knows it’s time to wake up.

2. Exercise regularly.  You may feel like slowing down, but continuing your usual exercise routine will improve energy and prevent weight gain.  A regular yoga practice is particularly effective at combating seasonal depression.  Find a class or try one of the many on-line videos.

3. Get outside.  Even in the winter, natural sunshine will help.

4. Consider taking a vitamin D3 supplement.  While there isn’t enough evidence to link vitamin D to SAD, we do know that many people living away from the Equator have a deficiency.  Low vitamin D can cause fatigue and low mood, and supplements are available at your regular drug store.  Your doctor may recommend checking your level with a simple blood test to ensure you are taking the right amount.

5. Try bright light therapy.  This requires the purchase of a special treatment lamp.  These lamps typically cost about $200, but you can find a range of styles and prices on the internet.  Insurance may cover the cost, but in my experience, don’t count on it.  In order to be effective, the lamp must have a brightness of at least 10,000 lux, and you will need to sit close to the lamp (but not looking at the light) for about 30 minutes each morning.  People with bipolar disorder should discuss bright light therapy with their doctor first, as it can trigger manic episodes.

6. If all else fails, or your symptoms aren’t improving, talk to your doctor.  Several anti-depressants have been found to be effective treatments for SAD.

The colder months are a time for slowing down, so listen to your body and take care of yourself.  Remember: no matter how dark and cold the winter, it’s always followed by the spring.


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