Keeping it real and using science to explain

Q and A: Cynthia how do I keep Seasonal Affective Disorder in Check?

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at 2015.03.04
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Cynthia, I have seasonal affective disorder that lasts until around May every year, especially since I moved to Chicago. Is there anything I can do to keep it in check?

Hang in there another month or so. Spring is just around the corner. March is a very tough month for people with the “Winter Blues” or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as the “blues” build up to a crescendo by the end of the season. Usually by spring the depression associated with SAD begins its descent and dramatically improves in the summer, although there are people who experience the disorder in the spring and summer while actually feeling at their best in the winter.

It is important to treat SAD as the condition is a subset of depression. It should be evaluated by a health care professional prior to trying any therapies to determine if pharmacotherapy or counseling is warranted. The condition when severe enough can affect people’s daily lives at work, with interpersonal lives taking the hardest hit.

The symptoms of SAD are the same as depression except that it usually comes and goes with the seasons. Symptoms are typically feeling fatigued, depressed and sluggish all day almost every day. Other symptoms specific to SAD are oversleeping, irritability, feelings of guilt and hopelessness, craving food high in carbohydrates and weight gain.

There are a number of “natural” treatments available. Increase your consumption of fish to start. A 2000 Am J Psychiatry study by Magnusson, looked at Icelanders who consume a diet high in seafood. They found a lack of seasonal affective disorder in Icelanders, a compelling finding, compared to other countries of similar latitude. Other studies in mood disorders show that fish oil has marked mood stabilizing and anti-depressant activity.

Another important nutrient is vitamin D. Researchers have linked a deficiency in Vitamin D with increases in seasonal affective disorder as well as depression. Vitamin D affects depression by playing a role in the production of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine that are linked to depression when in short supply. Ask your physician to check your Vitamin D levels by a simple blood test to see if you are deficient.

Because of decreased seasonal exposure to light in the winter, circadian rhythms become altered along with the resultant change in Serotonin and Melatonin levels in susceptible individuals. Light therapy in the form of a light box usually for 30 minutes in the morning can improve Serotonin metabolism. According to a study by Lurie and 3 others, 2006 Am Fam Physicians, earlier in the day was preferred for light therapy as the early morning light regulates Melatonin secretion vs. later in the day. It is important to use a light box that is specific for SAD therapy for best results and to minimize exposure to ultraviolet rays. Interestingly, the researchers also commented that “like drug therapy for depression, light therapy also carries some risk of precipitating mania”. So do consult with a specialist before working with a light box at home.

Exercise is an important component in combating SAD. The endorphin boost and glow that accompany a good workout can only help. Yes, winter is a hard time of year to keep active and most folks don’t want to leave the house, even for the gym, so buying a treadmill for home can be a great solution.

Lastly, take advantage of days when there is full sunshine. Sit in a room that has let the most light in it and be sure to partake in a winter sport that you can do outside. Even going for a walk for 30 minutes on a sunny day can help.

The above statements are for informational purposes only and are not meant to treat any disorder or disease. Always consult first with your physician if you think you suffer from either depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder before trying any therapies.

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