Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder

I saw it, and heard others talking about it too – that magical stretch the other day when the sun came out, turning the bleak February landscape into glistening wonderland.

I parked my car by the Ohio River, just sat there, and drank in the sun for about an hour. The silver ice-coated branches, glittering like diamonds against the blue sky, lifted my winter-weary spirits.

It’s not your imagination if a shot of sunshine seems to brighten your outlook this time of year. In fact, if you feel particularly down, you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD is a condition that hits some people when there is less natural sunlight. Six percent of the U.S. population, primarily in Northern climates, are affected by full-blown SAD, and another 14 percent suffer from a lessor form, known as “winter blues,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The condition is more common in women than men.

According to Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, who led the NIMH team that described and named the disorder in 1984, patients with SAD can be just as depressed as patients with major depressive disorder. The only distinction between the depressive disorders is the timing of the episodes, which, for SAD patients, hit during the short, dark days of winter and subside during sunnier times of the year, Rosenthal explained in the journal Psychiatry.

Symptoms of SAD can include:

  • Sad, anxious or "empty" feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or helplessness
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
  • Changes in weight
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Researchers have studied SAD in Antarctic fieldworkers, whose exposure to dark polar winters stymies their vitamin D production. Researchers have found that supplemental vitamin D, along with broad-spectrum light exposure, can be effective treatments to the disorder. Other effective treatments include antidepressant medicines, talk therapy and the hormone melatonin, according the Journal of Affective Disorders.

Broad-spectrum lights, often called “light boxes” or “light visors,” feature different types and intensities of bulbs designed to mimic outdoor light. Researchers have found that 30 minutes of daily exposure to such light can cause chemical changes in the brain, lifting the mood and easing other symptoms of SAD, according to the NIMH.

Your physician can give you more information about light machines, which are sold over-the-counter and on the internet, are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and are not covered by most health insurance plans.

The Cleveland Clinic also suggests these tactics to combat SAD or the winter blues:

  • Exercise outside for at least 20 minutes a day, to boost your endorphins and help you sleep better
  • Eat a healthy diet, to prevent sluggishness
  • Take a daily D-3 supplement with 1,000 IU if you’re under 60, or 1,200 IU if you’re older.