With the winter months come colder weather, shorter days and sometimes depressing thoughts. When it seems like there is so little time in the day, yet still so much to do and worse weather to do it in, it’s hard not to let environmental factors get you down. Yet for some, “the blues” can become an even bigger issue, it can turn into a form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
A disorder that comes about in the fall and winter months, symptoms of SAD can include, hopelessness, anxiety, lack of energy or excitement, social withdrawal, extreme sleepiness, change in appetite, craving high-carb comfort food and weight gain.
While many of you may be thinking, ‘yes, that describes my general attitude toward winter,’ it is important to differentiate between SAD and the winter blues. SAD is an acute type of depression, characterized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) as a severely debilitating disorder.
Dr. Lisa Elconin, who specializes in internal medicine at her private practice group, Infinity Primary Care, in Farmington Hills, supports this. “People who have [SAD] have clinical depression. SAD itself is a whole diagnosis,” she said. “Its not just feeling blue, but the inability to have fun, trouble sleeping or having trouble just working or concentrating. People with SAD, they’re dysfunctional. It’s truly a clinical depression.”
While SAD is definitively considered a disorder, there are varying degrees in which people can experience the depression. “Some people are mildly depressed and some people get severely depressed where they don’t want to go on living.” Elconin said.
While doctors are unable to pinpoint a specific cause, there are factors that play a role in SAD. An imbalance of melatonin, the hormone that affects sleep patterns and mood, as well as a drop in serotonin levels, the chemical in the brain that affects mood, are two factors that can play a role in causing SAD. Both can be attributed to the lack of sunlight during the winter months.
Depending on the severity of SAD in individuals, treatments can also vary, ranging from a form of light therapy, called phototherapy, to psychotherapy or medication. Light therapy boxes, used at 15-30 minute intervals a day, are intended to mimic the appearance of outdoor light and elevate moods. They are becoming increasingly popular and easy to use, as they are available for purchase of the counter. “There are certain types of light that help stimulate the brain, and if used early, can serve as a preventative,” Elconin said. However it should be mentioned that light therapy boxes have not yet been approved by the FDA, as research is still being conducted to approve their effectiveness.
Another alternative to combating SAD is taking supplements of melatonin to help regulate the body’s sleep patterns and consequential moods. “Melatonin supplements can’t hurt,” Elconin said. Though she noted that they should be sought out only upon a doctor’s advice.
Antidepressants are another form of medication that may also be used to treat the disorder. However unlike melatonin supplements, these are a prescribed drug and must absolutely be consulted with doctor first, usually a psychotherapist. Whether one needs to be on antidepressants year around or only seasonally to deal with depression depends on the severity of SAD. “People with severe SAD need to be on antidepressants,” Elconin said. “Light therapy and medications will not be enough. Although it is a seasonal disorder, SAD is not necessarily cyclical. If you experience SAD one year it doesn’t mean you will automatically undergo it the following. Other factors such as stress and heartache can exacerbate tendencies of SAD. “If people have mild SAD and other things in their life aren’t going well, like unhappiness with their job or a difficult breakup; it might exacerbate it,” Elconin said. However, this is true only for some. “People with severe degrees will get it every year,” she said.
While there is no sound way to prevent SAD, Elconin said that staying active and involved during the winter months is one way to help ward off feeling blue. “A lot of people don’t like to go out when it’s cold or darker out,” she said. “But staying at home can be really depressive. Stay social and get out of the house.”
To up your chances of staying happy and stable, behave as you do during the warmer months and pay close attention to what your body is telling you.
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