Are you SAD?

The acronym for “seasonal affective disorder,” SAD, seems quite appropriate when you consider that this condition is a form of clinical depression. The disorder is tied to seasonal changes in weather. Have you ever noticed that your mood takes a turn for the worse whenever a thunderstorm rolls in, but recovers when that colourful rainbow lights up the sky? For most people, these mood swings do not affect their ability to perform daily functions. However, to others, autumn not only brings shorter days, but also the SAD-ness that is seasonal affective disorder. People who suffer from this condition are seriously affected, both personally and professionally. While some suffer from SAD primarily in the summer season, the most common form of the condition is the winter-onset variety, which affects approximately 500,000 people in the United States alone. Further, a milder form of this seasonal depression is likely experienced by an additional 10-20 per cent of people.

Awareness of this mental condition has been around for 150 years, but has only been recognized as a disorder since the early 1980s. According to research in Ontario, between two to three percent of the general population may have SAD, and another fifteen percent may experience the less severe condition, “winter blues.” SAD affects people of any age but is most prevalent in those who are older than 20. However, as this initial age threshold is passed, the risk of SAD decreases. There have been studies to suggest that SAD is more often experienced by women and by people who live in northern countries (because of the shorter winter days). Shift workers and urban dwellers are particularly susceptible to SAD because they are often deprived of exposure to natural light sources within their work environments.

You may ask, what causes this disorder? Well, I’m sorry to report that there is no definitive answer to this question at the moment. However, research continues to take place and there are presently two different theories that seek to explain this depression. The first theory deals with the disorder’s relationship to seasonal variations of light. All human brains are said to contain a biological “clock” that regulates our daily rhythms. This clock responds to differences in seasons, and chiefly, the length of daylight. For thousands of years, the human daily routine mirrored the natural transitions between night and day. In the past, there were few other light sources besides the sun, so, when it set, all activity stopped. When the sun was shining, you killed animals, waged wars or enjoyed afternoon tea. But, as soon as the sun set and the moon rose, you went to sleep in your cave, castle or mansion. However, once electricity was introduced to our world, the importance of daytime activity diminished. So nowadays, although we have the technology to fully light our room at 1 a.m. (yes, I’m talking about all of you last-minute paper writers), it doesn’t mean that we should. Our biological clock is telling us, “It’s dark — go to bed now!” Ideally, as the seasons change, so should our sleeping patterns. The second theory to potentially explain the symptoms of SAD deals with neurotransmitters, chemical messengers in the brain that regulate sleep, mood and appetite. People suffering from SAD are said to have disturbed neurotransmitters.

SAD is difficult to diagnose because the associated symptoms are similar to those of other types of depression, bipolar disorder, and even thyroid irregularities. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, the symptoms of SAD typically includes:

—Appetite changes (especially cravings for sweet or starchy foods)
—Weight gain
—Decreased energy
—Tendency to oversleep
—Difficulty concentrating
—Avoidance of social situations
—Feelings of anxiety and despair

Therefore, because these symptoms are characteristic of many conditions, doctors often focus on two features when diagnosing this type of depression. First, the above symptoms must have persisted for at least two consecutive winters. Secondly, there must be no other explanation for the mood and behaviour changes. These symptoms usually disappear when spring arrives. Due to the symptomatic proximity between SAD and other, more serious forms of depression, it is very important to consult your health care professional and allow them to make a proper diagnosis.

If, after visiting with your doctor, a diagnosis of SAD is confirmed, you can rest assured knowing that it is indeed a treatable condition. Even if you exhibit the relatively rare severe symptoms, once treatment begins, relief will come fast, and you will be able to live a productive life for the full 12 months of the year. There are two primary steps one can take to get on the road to recovery. Increasing your exposure to light is the first modification that should be made. There are two ways to do this: spend more time outdoors during the day, and modify your indoor environment to let as much light into your living space as you can to maximize sunlight opportunities. Light therapy is another alternative to which many people respond well. This form of treatment simply involves sitting beside a special florescent light box for several minutes a day. If not used properly, light therapy can induce eyestrain, headaches, irritability and insomnia and should not be used on patients who suffer from more severe forms of depression or who have skin or eyes that are particularly sensitive to sunlight exposure. For these reasons, it is important to note that a health care professional should be consulted before beginning this procedure. Still others take more expensive, albeit relaxing measures by departing on a sunny vacation in order to catch some much-needed rays. This plan can temporarily relieve symptoms, but most recur after the return home. Regardless of the methods, you’ve increased your sun exposure and the next step to treating your SAD is to alter your exercise, diet and sleep patterns. Being physically active relieves stress, builds energy and increases both your physical and mental well-being. After exercise, sleep and diet are two very important factors to your recovery. Simply try to resist the carbohydrate and sleep cravings that come with the territory of suffering from SAD. So, changes in light, diet, exercise and sleep behaviours should do the trick and cure regular cases of SAD — but more severe experiences may require professional help with solutions such as antidepressant medication, counselling and cognitive-behavioural therapy.

Whether you are healthy, suffer from the “winter blues” or have an extreme case of seasonal affective disorder, I would encourage everyone to live their lives in accordance to the above recommendations. Regular sunlight, exercise, sleep and a healthy diet never hurt anyone!