You Don’t Have To Be SAD This Season

By Dawn Williams, Senior News Associate Publisher

The days are noticeably shorter, and as a result, many people are beginning to experience  symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD for short), a condition similar to depression but triggered by the changing of the seasons. SAD is similar to major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder, except that SAD begins and ends when seasons change, and the pattern repeats more often than not in your history.

If you’re one of those people, take heart. You don’t have to be SAD this season.

First, if you’ve endured this condition repeatedly without talking to your doctor, doing so is an ideal first step. Although more severe symptoms sometimes respond best to pharmaceutical treatment, quite often one can find relief through changes in food choices, increased physical activity, and lifestyle habits. Consult your healthcare provider before initiating any self-care regimen.

For most people, it begins in fall or early winter, and abates in spring or early summer.

The symptoms of SAD are similar to those of major depression, according to Mayo Clinic, and include irritability, fatigue, problems getting along with others, extreme sensitivity to rejection, a heavy feeling in the extremities, oversleeping, weight gain; and appetite changes, especially a craving for carbohydrates.

Doctors think the symptoms of SAD might be brought on by the lack of light in the winter months. Reduced sunlight can disrupt your circadian rhythm, decrease production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, and disrupt the balance of melatonin, which affects sleep patterns and mood. The lack of light also results in a decreased production of Vitamin D, which is commonly found in people with all types of depressive conditions.

Light therapy, according to Mayo Clinic, is one of the primary treatments for autumn-onset SAD, relieving symptoms at least in part within several weeks. The light therapy box makes your body react as if it were exposed to natural sunlight, correcting the brain chemicals that affect mood.

Daily exercise is very effective in relieving all forms of depression, according to studies. An activity as simple as a brisk 30-minute walk can help improve symptoms and boost your quality of sleep. When you feel able, pick up the pace, add some time to your walk, or both.

The craving for simple carbohydrates according to some studies may be triggered due to the physiological effect they have on the body. According to the National Institutes of Health, consuming the starches and sweets we crave is the catalyst for the increased release of serotonin. This effect may provide very short-term relief, leaving us craving even more when the effect wears off. The pattern leads to unhealthy weight gain and blood sugar levels, so moderating diet is extremely important. Include proteins, especially those containing omega-3 fatty acids, along with a variety of fruits, vegetables and grains.

In addition to these treatments - or in advance, to delay or prevent the onset of symptoms - Mayo Clinic recommends keeping your environment as bright as possible, getting outside daily, and exercising regularly. The clinic also sites alternative and complementary treatments, but encourages individuals to do so in cooperation with a medical professional, since many supplements and herbs can interact with other medications you may be taking and with each other. Supplements that have shown some promise include St. John’s wort, SAMe (S-adenosyl-L-methionine), melatonin, and omega-3 fatty acids. Your doctor may also want to test you for Vitamin D deficiency. As mentioned previously, this is extremely common when you’re getting too little exposure to sunlight, which is necessary in the production of vitamin D in the body. If you show a deficiency, a weekly prescription-strength dose of the vitamin may be recommended.

Therapy is also a very useful resource in coping with and reversing at least some of the effects of SAD. Therapy can help you identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that exacerbate your condition, and help you find healthy ways to cope.

It can’t be emphasized enough, though, to begin by consulting your healthcare professional. Many physical conditions can cause depressive symptoms. These conditions may need to be either treated or ruled out before a diagnosis of SAD can be confirmed.

The important thing to remember is that help is available. No matter how long seasonal discomfort may have affected you, you don’t have to be SAD this season.