As the seasons change, especially from fall into winter, many people begin to feel moody and lack energy. Don’t brush it off as just a case of the “winter blues” or a seasonal funk that you just have to cope with. You could be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which is a type of depression that begins and ends around the same time each year. It is diagnosed more often in women than men, is seen more in younger adults and may affect as many as 20% of people in the U.S. Symptoms include feeling depressed most of the day almost every day, oversleeping but still tired, lack of energy and low interest in usual activities, appetite changes especially with cravings for high carbohydrate foods, weight gain, and difficulty concentrating. In severe cases, it can include feelings of hopelessness, guilt, alcoholism, or thoughts of suicide. While this might seem bleak, there are steps you can take to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the changes in seasons.
The reduced levels of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt your body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) and lead to feelings of depression. Also, a drop in your serotonin, which is a brain chemical that affects mood, can occur as a result of reduced sunlight, triggering depression. The change in season can also affect the balance of your melatonin, affecting your sleep patterns and mood.
As SAD is often related to changes in daylight, people often use light therapy or phototherapy. Light therapy boxes for SAD treatment are also known as phototherapy boxes. They mimic outdoor light and researchers believe can cause a chemical change in the brain which lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD. These boxes provide an exposure to 10,000 lux of light and emit as little UV light as possible. The light therapy involves using the light box for about 20-30 minutes within the first hour of waking up in the morning. It must be 16-24 inches from your face and your eyes must be open, but not looking directly at the light. Light boxes are designed to be safe and effective, but are not approved or regulated by the FDA for SAD treatment. You can buy a light box without a prescription as most health plans will not cover it. Your doctor may recommend a specific one for you. There are many characteristics of light boxes so you should do your research before buying one. Talking to your healthcare professional will help you choose the one that will best suit your needs.
While it is normal to have some days where you feel down, if you see it is becoming a daily pattern, see your doctor, especially if you experience any of the severe symptoms noted above. Left untreated, SAD can lead to withdrawing socially, school or work issues, and substance abuse problems, especially in people who have a history of depression or bipolar disorder. Your doctor may prescribe physical exercise, cognitive behavioral therapy, Chronotherapy (controlled sleep deprivation with phase advance), light therapy, and medications such as Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) and antidepressants as treatment.
With the treatments available today, you do not have to suffer from SAD every winter. You can be out on the slopes, skating and celebrating holidays with family and friends, as well as just enjoying all the fun that winter has to offer.
Credit to the Mayo Clinic