Seasonal Affective Disorder (appropriately referred to as S.A.D) is a cyclical mood disorder that affects approximately five percent of North Americans. Also referred to as “Hibernation Syndrome,” it can actually occur as a repetitive condition during the summer as well, although the winter variant is much more common. Females are more likely to suffer with this than males, particularly those younger than 40. Fortunately there is effective treatment, but like most things is life, you have to realize you have the problem before you can try to cure it!
Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers experience this malady annually. Severity may vary, but bouts always begin at about the same time each year. Classic winter blues develop in mid-to-late autumn. Symptoms include fatigue, loss of interest in things you previously enjoyed, reduced ability to concentrate and make decisions, and feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. Preoccupation with death or even thoughts of suicide can also occur. Food craving, particularly of sweets and other carbohydrates is very common, as is associated weight gain. The less common summer variant starts in mid-to-late spring and is comprised of a different set of symptoms: insomnia, reduced appetite, weight loss, anxiety and agitation. The remainder of this article will focus on the better understood winter type.
Risk factors for S.A.D. have been identified. Family history and residence in the northern United States or in any area with a cloudy/dark winter are known to increase your chances of experiencing this mood disorder. It is also more common in alcoholics and people with vitamin D deficiency. So, aside from genetic tendencies, this is a treatable and even preventable condition!
The primary treatment for Winter Blues is exposure to energy in the spectrum of sunlight, be it natural or artificial. Thirty minutes once daily is the typical protocol, although some individuals require as much as 45 minutes twice daily. While it is unnecessary and not advisable to look directly at the light, the lumination must be seen. If delivered artificially, it should emanate from an eye-level source. Absorbing light through the skin only is not an effective remedy—A TANNING BED IS NOT A VIABLE SUBSTITUTE! You can purchase a lamp that emits artificial sunlight minus the harmful UV rays for anywhere between $200 and $500. The most effective device is a “dawn simulator” which floods your bedroom with progressively brighter light each morning. Overall, light treatment cures about two thirds of S.A.D. sufferers, usually within several weeks.
Medications may be used in addition or in place of light treatment for S.A.D. and also typically take several weeks to “kick in.” The most effective drugs are the same ones that work well for other types of depression, that is, SSRIs. These Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors are felt to reverse the depletion of serotonin in the nervous system that season change triggers. Serotonin is the brain’s “feel good” neurochemical; it is theorized that lowered levels are caused by stress, be it psychosocial (holidays) or physical (shortened daylight period). Substances that help serotonin levels normalize are effective tools to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder.
As always, though, prevention trumps cure. So how do you prevent the likelihood of experiencing seasonal affective disorder? Get checked for vitamin D deficiency, and use a recommended supplement daily if advised. Try to be outside during daylight hours for at least 30 minutes each day. Utilize artificial sunlamps to supplement light exposure. Address issues of alcohol overuse before the risky season starts. And contemplate relocating to the south if your disorder is particularly severe. Even if you have never experienced this depression variant, consider efforts of prevention if it runs in your family. Winter around here is hard enough without getting “the blues!”