When sad becomes S.A.D.

Understanding seasonal affective disorder, and ways to help alleviate it

Winter can be a hard time of month for many people. You may feel holed up in your home, with added stress from school or work, and experiencing little sunshine to give you that boost of warmth you need. While we almost all experience the winter blues at some point, some suffer from a more serious condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder.

“People will start feeling it at the same time of year, year after year,” explains Terri Gallop, administration at the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba. “So if you started feeling the effects of it last year in November, regardless of what the weather is like, even if it is still bright and sunny out, you will start to feel the effects then.” This, she says, along with more lasting symptoms, is the main difference between the regular winter blues, and Seasonal Affective Disorder.

According to the MDAM website, between 2-3% of Canadians are affected by S.A.D. While it can only be diagnosed by a doctor, some symptoms include tiredness, fatigue, loss of sex drive, crying spells, irritability, and overeating.

If you are experiencing these symptoms, or know others who are, it is important to know there are available therapies that can help treat the depression.

Gallop says there is no magic-bullet - “It’s very personal; what works for one may not work for the other” - but one of the top solutions she says people try is light therapy. Light therapy consists of sitting in front of a very bright light, usually a full-spectrum fluorescent light, for 20-30 minutes every morning.  It is thought to help the body’s internal circadian rhythm, and also may encourage the brain to release neurochemicals that help increase mood.

It is important to note that light therapy is not the same thing as a tanning bed due to the fact that the majority of the lights used do not give off UV rays. UV light, as found in a tanning bed, creates a chemical reaction in the skin which results in a tan and gives the body Vitamin D, but the lights in tanning beds are not bright enough to help with the circadian rhythm or neurochemicals.

Vitamin D is important to get from other sources, as it is another component that can factor into winter depression.  Recent studies have shown a strong correlation between depression and lack of Vitamin D, which is also essential in bone growth and organ system maintenance.  Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology Edward Giovannucci in the Harvard Public Health Review, says that most experts today agree that between 1,000 to 2,000 IU of Vitamin D is needed per day. During the winter months, it is a good idea to take Vitamin D to supplement what you are missing from the sun.

Other methods to combat S.A.D. that Gallop recommends are talk counseling, psychiatrist sessions, or CBT (cognitive Behavior Therapy training), exercise, and in some cases medications.

Of course, this article just skims the surface, and if you are suffering from winter depression, it is important to reach out and seek professional help. One’s health needs to always be a priority, but especially so in winter where we face some of the most extreme of climates.

Published in Volume 68, Number 15 of The Uniter (January 8, 2014)

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