Shedding Light on Seasonal Affective Disorder

Just as a bright sunny day can lift our mood and spirit, the short and darker days of fall and winter can have the opposite effect, making us feel sad and blue. An occasional case of the winter blues is no cause for concern, but long-lasting feelings of sadness and depression during the winter months could be due to a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD affects approximately 2 to 4 percent of the Canadian population and is much more common in women than men and also among those living in northern areas of the country. It peaks during the winter months of December, January, and February. The exact cause of SAD is unknown however it may result from seasonal variations in serotonin (levels are lower in the winter) or melatonin (levels are higher during darker months which causes sleepiness).

Some of the most common symptoms of SAD include:

  • Feelings of hopelessness and sadness
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Increased sleep
  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability and anxiety
  • Increased appetite and weight; cravings for sweets or starchy foods

For some, those dark days can lead to missed work, overwhelming feelings of fatigue and despair and strained relationships. Seeing your doctor for a proper diagnosis is an important first step to take.

Since SAD is caused by a reaction to a lack of sunlight, the mainstay of treatment involves light therapy. A specially made light box or a light visor providing broad spectrum light is used for 30 minutes to several hours each day. Benefits may be noticed in as little as a few days however it may take a week or longer to get the full effect. Light therapy should be used regularly during the fall and winter until symptoms subside and enough daylight is available.

Light therapy is very well tolerated. Side effects are usually mild (eye strain or visual disturbances, headache, nausea and sweating) and diminish with time or reduction of exposure.

If light therapy does not help, doctors may recommend medication. The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) raise serotonin levels and are effective in alleviating the symptoms however their use is hindered by numerous side effects. A natural alternative to consider is a supplement called S-adenosyl-methionine (SAMe) which has been studied extensively for its ability to boost serotonin levels and reduce the symptoms of depression – without the side effects of drug therapy.

Here are some other lifestyle tips to brighten up your mood during the winter:

Regular exercise – bundle up and participate in fall/winter activities that get you outdoors so that you can maximize any available sunshine. With proper clothing winter walking, skating and skiing can be a great way to get exercise and sunshine.

Nutritional Supplements – important for emotional well being; take a good quality multivitamin and mineral complex and omega-3 fish oil

Increase the amount of light in your environment – sit near a window, open blinds, use lamps, and trim any trees that block your exposure to sun