T. S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruellest month,” but for some–around 11 million Americans–there’s more cruelty to be found at the opposite end of the calendar. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that expresses itself during the late fall and winter. A more serious form of the “winter blues,” which affects nearly 25 million, SAD is recurrent year to year and comes with emotional, psychological, and physical side effects that can take the joy out of this ostensibly festive season. While it’s natural to feel the urge to cuddle on the couch with a cup of tea and enjoy a Jimmy Stewart marathon as the days grow shorter, a stronger desire to shut yourself indoors could be sign for you to see your doctor.
Statistics show that the most common type of SAD occurs during winter months, typically between October and April, with January and February being the worst months. Symptoms include general depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, low energy and food cravings (mostly for carbohydrates), weight gain, a heavy feeling in the arms and legs, lack of interest in normal activities, and oversleeping. Those suffering from SAD report sleeping on average 4 hours more a day and gaining up to 20 pounds. As is true with most psychological conditions, these symptoms vary among individuals: some may become apathetic but not oversleep, while others experience anxiety but maintain their normal energy levels. The basic science behind winter SAD has to do with the sun and a disruption of our bodies’ natural circadian rhythm. As the levels of darkness increase–exacerbated by the turning back of the clocks here in the US–our bodies produce more of the hormone melatonin, which induces a tired feeling. Conversely, levels of serotonin–the hormone that makes us energized and happy–decreases, along with our overall mood. Because of this connection to light, there are more instances of SAD the farther away from the equator you go: in fact, SAD is 8 times more likely in the northeast region of the US and in Canada than in more southern locations.
About 10% of those with SAD–those with Eliotic tendencies–suffer in the springtime instead of winter. The symptoms of so-called “reverse SAD” are generally the same, including anxiety and depression, but are also apposite winter SAD: insomnia, irritability, agitation, weight loss, poor appetite, and an increased sex drive (hm, is that a bad thing?). Here, the increased light seems to overstimulate the body and create an almost manic state, one that nonetheless disrupts daily activities. The important common point between both varieties is that the symptoms occur around the equinoxes–the extreme durations of light. An even smaller percentage of people experience SAD during both equinoxes.
Like most forms of depression, SAD tends to run in families and in people who have other types of mental illness, depression and bipolar disorder most commonly. (SAD can also make bipolar conditions worse, as you might imagine, with even greater mood swings.) Women suffer from seasonal depression four times as often as men do, although men tend to report more extreme symptoms. The condition manifests most frequently in one’s twenties, and risk increases with age.
It’s important to note the difference between a general feeling of depression, which could be caused by many different factors, and the specific condition of SAD. Doctors will only give this diagnosis when patients report symptoms for two consecutive years at the same season, and when no other life events might be at the core. There also needs to be periods of normal/increased mood following the depression, otherwise a more general mood disorder might be the problem.
While there’s no “cure” for SAD, there are many ways to battle your body’s reaction to the changing of seasons. One popular method is called “light therapy,” which uses a special lamp to stimulate natural light and thereby rebalance hormones that affect mood. If you’re looking to buy such a lamp, ask your doctor for a recommendation; the lamp should be specifically for treating SAD, primarily white (rather than blue, which is cold) light, and emit minimal UV rays (which might be used when treating a skin disorder). Ideally, light therapy should begin before symptoms start in an effort to prevent them, but that’s not always possible. Typically one uses the light in the morning to simulate the sunrise, for a duration of 30 to 90 minutes a day, with relief in 2 to 4 days.
There are also some wonderful natural remedies that don’t require baking yourself under a lamp like an iguana. You can add to your diet supplements like St. John’s Wort–widely used for depression–melatonin, or omega-3 fatty acids (also found in foods). Practicing yoga, meditating, and getting a massage can also boost your mood with equal efficacy. Don’t forget, too, that during the time you suffer from SAD half a globe (literally!) has the opposite light patterns happening simultaneously: so if you live in the northeast of the US, this is the perfect time to take a (medically necessary) vacation to somewhere warm and tropical. If you can’t plan a getaway, you can also make an effort to spend more time outside taking walks or exercising, or simply rearrange your home to allow for maximum light exposure.
SAD is by no means a permanent condition, and with proper treatment it can be easily and quickly alleviated to restore a natural balance in your mind and body. Winter can bring darker times for everyone–what with the stress of holidays and family, and generally coping with colder weather–and taking care of yourself can easily be subsumed under the demands of giving as much of yourself to others as possible. But your health and happiness should always be the number-one priority, and may even result in you becoming the ray of sunshine in someone else’s life as well as your own.
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Photo: Jinterwas via Flickr