Do you find it a chore to crawl out of bed in the winter?
Are you SAD?
You may very well be, and don't even realize it.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a cyclic seasonal condition that rears its ugly head during late fall or early winter and goes away when warmer weather returns in the spring. It can start out mild and gain velocity like a runaway train, culminating in feelings of hopelessness and even thoughts of suicide.
"The important thing to know is it's not simply a case of the winter blues," said Larry Koppelman, a licensed clinical social worker with Family Services of Warren County, regarding the symptoms of SAD. "It's actually a sign of an emotional disorder. You lose a lot of energy, you eat lots of carbs, your sleep cycle is disrupted. I fear a lot of people have it, but don't get treatment for it."
SAD was first diagnosed in 1985 as a recognized medical problem. Classic symptoms include the following:
- increased appetite craving more sweets and carbohydrates.
- Weight gain.
- Increased sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness.
- Lack of energy and loss of interest in work and other activities.
- Social withdrawal.
- Feelings of depression, irritability and suicidal thoughts.
- Difficulty concentrating and processing information.
What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder remains unknown, but is thought to be linked to three factors: ambient light, body temperature and hormones.
Sufferers of SAD are affected the most when temperatures drop and the days become shorter and darker. Researchers have discovered that bright lights will change the chemicals in the brain.
A person exposed to less sunlight has lower levels of vitamin D in their blood, which can contribute to SAD. Melatonin, a hormone secreted by the pineal gland and affects sleep and moods, is produced at higher levels in the dark. Shorter and darker days increase melatonin production.
Decreased sunlight also hinders production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that affects mood and can lead to depression.
Dr. Ernesto Roederer, a psychiatrist who practices in Warren, defines SAD as a sub division to depression.
"People in the upper latitudes tend to be more vulnerable," Roederer said. "(SAD) is most likely driven by light. Some people will actually become manic during certain times of the year when the amount of light changes the most rapidly."
Other factors that may increase risk of contracting Seasonal Affective Disorder is family history and being female.
Some studies have shown that SAD is diagnosed more often in females. However, men may suffer more severe symptoms.
"Young women, in particular," Koppelman said, "and certainly people in northern climates. Someone might live in Texas their whole lives and never have it, then move to Maine and suddenly develop it."
Roederer and Koppelman both recommended exercise and light therapy as ways of combatting SAD.
"Eating well and good exercise is always a good treatment for mood disorders," Koppelman said. "Exercise is a natural antidepressant."
"Increase your exercise or start exercising regularly, even if you don't feel like it," Roederer said. "Get exposure to bright light between 7 and 8 a.m. Eat regularly, not excessively, and avoid carbs. Obviously, if it gets to the point that it interferes with you functioning, that's when medical attention might be needed."
Bright-light therapy, also known as heliotherapy, has proven to be one of the most successful forms of treatment for SAD, either accomplished naturally by increased exposure to sunlight during the day or by adding artificial light as a supplement.
Heliotherapy lamps produce a very bright full spectrum light. "Your eyes have to be open," Koppelman said. "Actually the back of your eyes need to see it. It hits the retinas and triggers a positive response in the brain. It also helps regulate serotonin and melatonin."
Koppelman said light therapy is normally conducted for 30 minutes a day, and is best used in the morning.
Koppelman urged people with symptoms of SAD or other depression to seek help, saying depression is the fourth highest cause of human suffering behind heart disease, cancer and car accidents.
"Most people who need help with depression don't get it," Koppelman said. "In the U.S., only about 25 percent of people suffering from depression get help."
Koppelman said statistically more women than men look for help trying to cope with depression. "I think men feels sort of ashamed coming in and asking for help," he said. "Men are supposed to be able to help themselves. I applaud any man who comes in and gets help for depression."