Hazy Shade of Winter

Posted October 26, 2007 in Mind Body Spirit

When Googling the term “SAD’s,” I was a bit surprised to see the phrase “Sudden Adult Death Syndrome.” It made the disorder I was researching—Seasonal Affective Disorder—seem a lot less scary. Less scary, yes, but that doesn’t mean that SAD isn’t painful and difficult. SAD is a type of depression that develops during the fall and/or winter, and is thought to be linked to a lack of sunlight. We’re not talking about your typical holiday grumpiness, urge to consume comfort foods or desire to sleep in a few more minutes to avoid the cold; people with SAD have a much more serious reaction to the changing seasons, suffering from lethargy, fatigue, weight gain and other problems in such a way as to markedly impair daily life. But once you recognize it, SAD can also be successfully managed. This week the IE Weekly has pointers on how to turn your SAD frown upside down.

Usually people who suffer from SAD live completely normal lives during the spring and summer seasons. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and thus a lack of sunlight. Just as sunlight affects the seasonal activities of animals (think bears that snooze the SAD months away), seasonal light variation can affect some humans. As seasons change, people experience a shift in their biological internal clock or circadian rhythm that can cause them to be out of step with their daily schedule. Another factor may be melatonin, a sleep-related hormone. This hormone, which has been linked to depression, is produced at increased levels in the dark.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, as many as half a million people in the United States may have winter depression, while another 10- to 20-percent may experience mild SAD. SAD is more common in women than in men, and it usually doesn’t appear until the age of 18-30. But, luckily, as you pass age 30, chances of experiencing SAD then begin to decrease. This mood downer is more common in northern geographic regions, and the most difficult months seem to be January and February.

As if this wasn’t blatantly obvious, the APA notes that those suffering from mild cases of SAD can benefit from additional exposure to the sun. They recommend taking a long walk outside (also good for getting rid of those extra pumpkin pie calories!) or arranging your home or office so that you are exposed to a window during the day.

But people with more sever cases of the condition may want to try light therapy (phototherapy), which entails exposure to very bright light (usually from a special fluorescent lamp) for a few hours each day during the winter months. The National Institutes of Health also suggest various medicines, changes in diet, learning to manage stress and going to a sunny climate during the cold months.

All health professionals agree that if you feel you are suffering from SAD, it is important to get screened and evaluated. SAD can be misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder, hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, infectious mononucleosis and other viral infections, so proper evaluation is necessary.

You may not think that you’re at too much risk of developing SAD here in sunny SoCal, but the APA points out that those who work long hours inside office buildings with few windows may experience symptoms all year, and some individuals may note changes in mood during long stretches of cloudy weather. Your best bet is to simply pay attention to any sudden or strange shifts in mood, and who knows? Maybe you’ll have the perfect excuse to spend the summer in Cancún.




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