Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Winter in the natural world is a time when most plants and animals slow down and prepare themselves for the renewal of spring. It is a time of rest and restoration. The days are shorter and temperatures are lower. However, we tend to not follow the natural cycle like other organisms. We proceed as if nothing is changing and because of our cozy buildings and modern conveniences we sometimes get away without paying much attention to Mother Nature. But as we have been warned; “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”
Where you live and the amount of daylight you receive depends on the latitude. In the very northern parts of Alaska there may not be more than an hour of sunlight a day and, if there is a cloud cover, there is perpetual darkness. Even in the southwest the sun rises later and sets sooner than it does in the summer. This annual decrease in sunlight appears to have a detrimental effect on some people, leading to depression. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), as it is known, has symptoms that commonly appear during late fall or early winter and will go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. Symptoms may start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses. People may manifest these symptoms as a mild continuous feeling that “things are just not right” or they may fall into a major depression. Those who have a relatively mild SAD may experience some or all of the following symptoms.
- Feeling irritable
- Being tired or having low energy
- Having problems getting along with other people
- Being hypersensitive to rejection
- Feeling heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
- Sleeping more than usual
- Having appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Experiencing weight gain
People who have a more severe SAD and fall into a major depression may experience some or all of the following:
- Feeling depressed most of the day; nearly every day
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having low energy
- Losing interest in activities once enjoyed
- Having problems with sleeping
- Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
Happily, there are ways to mitigate the effects of decreased sunlight. However, if you believe you have symptoms of severe SAD, you should consult a medical professional.
Full spectrum light bulbs used in the home are very helpful. Light therapy is considered a first line treatment for fall-onset SAD. It generally starts working in a few days to two weeks and has few side effects. While, research on light therapy is limited, it appears to be effective in relieving SAD symptoms for most people. With light therapy, also called phototherapy, the person is exposed to bright light by sitting a few feet from a special light therapy box. Light therapy mimics natural outdoor light and it appears to cause a change in brain chemicals that is linked to mood.
Good emotional health. This is vitally important for good physical health and a strong immune system. During the winter, because most of us spend a good portion of time with others, we are exposed to more germs; especially viruses. A robust immune system will help us stay well and away from flus and colds. Remember, wash your hands frequently, eat sensibly, and maintain a regular exercise regime. When spring comes (and it will) you will be renewed, fit, healthy, and happy!