Mind & Body
Let in the Light; Dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder
12/1/2019 1:00:00 PM
Seasonal Affective Disorder

Grandma called them the ‘winter blues’; Grandpa would say he was in the ‘doldrums’. Whatever it’s called, for many people, winter’s waning daylight and overcast skies invite in the shadows. For those affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD), even the relatively mild winter seasons of the Deep South can bring on anxiety, depression, and unexpected mood swings. The National Institute of Health (NIH) estimates that approximately 6% of people experience acute cases of SAD, while up to 14% report they simply feel blue, irritable, and out-of-sorts when the days grow shorter. 

Is SAD a real disorder?

What can be done to alleviate its more acute symptoms, such as loss of energy, appetite changes, increased sleepiness, and lack of interest in activities?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders no longer lists SAD as a simple mood disorder. They’ve extended its diagnosis as a ‘specifier,’ characterized by seasonal patterns that cause recurrent major depressive disorders. SAD’s symptoms occur only at specific times of year, while fully disappearing in other times. 

Causes include the decrease in the amount of daylight during fall and winter, which affects our circadian rhythms and causes hormonal changes. Being housebound due to inclement weather leads to less socializing and fewer outdoor activities. For this reason, SAD is more prevalent in regions with colder temperatures, heavy snowfall, and ice. Nearly 10% of the population of New Hampshire experience SAD, compared to less than 2% in Florida.

For severe depression from SAD, doctors prescribe antidepressant medications, taken over a few weeks prior to the onset of symptoms each year. However, non-pharmaceutical options are available, including light therapy, increased outdoor physical activity, scheduled socializing, dietary adjustments, and remedies that require the mind to concentrate.

Melatonin, a natural brain chemical, is switched on in darkness and off by light. This explains why some SAD sufferers report less depression when they sit near windows, soaking up the morning light. Others force themselves outdoors for brisk walks; even a short one can be a good antidote for anxiety. Many say they use longer winter days to catch up on reading, involvement in lifelong learning, or participation in other brain-sharpening exercises. For examples, you could learn to play a new musical instrument, familiarize yourself with a new language (there are apps for that), or take an online cooking class. Join a club with like-minded people. Dabble in art or learn to sew, knit or crochet. Tackle a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. It may be hard to get moving initially, but time passes more quickly when focused on activities that involve learning, movement, and goal-setting. 

There’s also wisdom in the adage ‘you are what you eat.’ Squashes and sweet potatoes are high in magnesium and potassium, filled with B6, Biotin, and anti-inflammatory agents. Asparagus increases serotonin and bananas stabilize blood sugar levels. Fish, like salmon, offer an energy boost from their omega-3 fatty acids. 

Left untreated, SAD sufferers can experience depression severe enough to bring on hopelessness and suicidal thoughts. In extreme cases, medical intervention is necessary. SAD may not be an issue for you, but if you suspect it is for a loved one, especially an elderly family member or neighbor, take action. Call them often. Invite them over for a healthy meal. Take them out for coffee, conversation, and camaraderie. Everyone has down days, but be alert to appetite and sleep pattern changes, difficulty in concentration, and expressions of hopelessness in others. You can be a positive presence in someone’s life this winter.

Posted by: Madelaine Brauner Landry | Submit comment | Tell a friend

Categories: Health

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