As the fall colours fade, daylight dwindles and winter rolls in, do you find yourself fighting the urge to hibernate? If the cold climate and dark days are dragging you down, you may be suffering from more than a basic case of the winter blues.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of winter depression that affects an estimated half-million people during the snowy season between September and April, and just might be the reason you fall into the same funk year after year.
Just as sunlight affects the seasonal activities of animals (read: reproductive cycles, migration and hibernation,) SAD may be an effect of this seasonal light variation in humans. As seasons and sunlight patterns shift so to do our biological clocks, and they often fall out of step with our daily schedules. Most people find that they eat and sleep a bit more and dislike the dark mornings and short days, but for some the disturbance is severe enough to disrupt their lives and cause considerable distress. A diagnosis can be made after three or more consecutive winters of symptoms which can include the following:
Depression: Feelings of misery, guilt, apathy, despair, and a loss of self-esteem.
Lethargy: Frequent fatigue and inability to cruise through your normal routine.
Disrupted sleep patterns: Clocking serious overtime between the sheets or, conversely, the inability to drift off and early morning wakening.
Uncontrollable cravings: Insatiable appetite for carbs and sweets, usually resulting in weight gain.
Mood swings: Irritability and desire to shun social situations.
Anxiety: Tension and inability to cope with stress.
Loss of libido: Decreased sex drive and loss of interest in intimacy.
Weakened immune system: Increased vulnerability to infections and other illnesses.
The symptoms associated with SAD usually subside with the onset of spring, either suddenly and with a short period of hyperactivity, or gradually, depending on the intensity of the sun’s rays in spring and early summer.
Beating the blues
Because SAD develops when the body is starved of sunlight, the primary treatment is phototherapy. This method involves sitting two to three feet away from a specially designed light box that emits light with an intensity of 2500 lux or higher. (For the sake of comparison, ordinary bulbs in your home or office emit an intensity of 200-500 lux, and the sunlight on a bright summer day can reach 100 000 lux.) Bright light therapy has been shown to suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin, which is linked with an antidepressant effect. Sessions average about one to two hours per day and should be started in fall at the first sign of symptoms.
In addition to phototherapy, patients are encouraged to exercise often and keep tabs on their diet. Carbohydrate intake should be kept to a minimum to help stabilize insulin levels, and focus should lie in the consumption of fresh fruits and veggies.
If clean living and light therapy prove ineffective, you might want to pop into Concordia Health Services or make an appointment with your family physician for a second opinion.
So if you find your spirits sinking as the seasons shift, take a minute to assess if it could be SAD. Identifying the source of your depression is the first step in ensuring that you don’t spend another winter singing the blues.