Chase away the winter blues by knowing the causes of SAD

January 18, 2012

Dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder

The holiday season is over. The parties have ended. Now you're looking at a few months of winter's coldest and darkest days. For many of us, those winter months can make us feel sad or depressed. Sometimes, that feeling doesn't go away until spring.

In the old days, this sad feeling during winter was sometimes known as "cabin fever." Today, health professionals have a new name for this condition. It's called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. This seasonal depression is a mood disorder that happens every year at the same time.

Your body changes during the winter.

WebMD.com reports that there are actually two kinds of SAD. One starts in the fall and continues through the winter. The other starts in late spring or early summer.

In today's article, we'll talk about the SAD that happens in the fall and winter.

First of all, what causes it? The answer is, your body. Chemicals inside your brain change the way you feel at certain times of the year. Experts believe that SAD is related to these chemical changes. One theory is that reduced sunlight during winter makes your body produce less serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical that has a calming effect. When you don't have enough serotonin, you can feel depressed. You can also feel fatigued and hungry. You may also gain weight.

Foods high in carbohydrates, like chips, pretzels, and cookies boost serotonin. So those foods can have a calming, soothing effect on the body and mind. SAD usually starts when you are a young adult. It is also more common in women than in men. Some people with SAD report very mild symptoms and feel out of sorts or irritable. Others have more severe symptoms that can harm relationships and productivity.

Lack of enough daylight during winter is related to SAD. So it is rarely found in countries close to the equator. That's because they have plenty of sunshine year round.

How do you know if you are suffering from SAD?

People with SAD have many of the normal signs of depression, including:

  • Loss of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Hunger more often
  • Increased desire to be alone
  • Sleepier
  • Weight gain
  • Sadness
  • Heavy feeling in the arms or legs
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed

Who is more likely to suffer from SAD?

Some people get SAD more than others. Things that may increase your risk of seasonal affective disorder include:

  • Being a woman. SAD is found more often in women than in men. However, men may have symptoms that are more severe.
  • Living far from the equator. SAD is more common among people who live far north or south of the equator. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter.
  • Family history. People with SAD may be more likely to have family members with SAD.

SAD can be a serious problem.

If you have any signs or symptoms of SAD, you should take them seriously. SAD can get worse and lead to problems if it's not treated. The problems can include:

  • Suicidal thoughts or behavior
  • Wanting to be left alone
  • School or work problems
  • Drug or alcohol abuse

Treatment can help prevent problems from getting worse. Especially if your doctor diagnoses and treats SAD early.

How can you treat SAD?

The good news about winter SAD is that it usually goes away in the spring. But what can you do until then to feel better? WebMD.com offers several suggestions.

Many doctors suggest that people with SAD try to get outside early in the morning. This will increase your exposure to natural light. Getting morning light may be impossible because of the dark winter months. This is especially true if you work a 9-to-5 job. So, you may ask your doctor about medicine that can ease depression. Or, you can try light therapy.

Light Therapy

Light therapy uses a full-spectrum bright light comes from a box that you sit or work near. The box gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. When you use light therapy, you sit about 2 feet away from a bright light.

This is about 20 times brighter than normal room lighting. The treatment starts with one 10- to 15-minute session per day. Then the times increase to 30- to 45-minutes a day, depending on how you react.

Some people with SAD recover within days using light therapy. Others take much longer. If the SAD symptoms do not go away, your doctor may increase the light therapy. Your doctor may increase your sessions to twice a day. If you get better using light therapy, you should continue until spring. .

Medicines

Some people with SAD may get better with help from antidepressant treatments. This is especially true if symptoms are severe.

Your doctor may suggest starting treatment with an antidepressant before your symptoms begin each year. You may continue to take antidepressant medication after your symptoms normally go away. It may take several weeks to notice the full benefits from an antidepressant. In addition, you may have to try different medicines before you find one that works well for you.

Natural ways to treat SAD

There are other things you can do to lessen the effects of SAD. You can try the following:

  • Make your home or office sunnier and brighter. Open blinds, trim tree branches that block sunlight or add skylights to your home. Sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office.
  • Get outside. Take a long walk, eat lunch at a nearby park, or sit on a bench. Do what you can to soak up the sun. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help.
  • Exercise regularly. Physical exercise helps relieve stress, which can increase SAD symptoms. Being more fit can make you feel better about yourself, too.

Take care of yourself to keep your SAD under control

Following these steps can help you manage seasonal affective disorder:

  • Stick to your treatment plan. Take medications as directed and attend therapy appointments as scheduled.
  • Take care of yourself. Get enough rest and take time to relax. Start a regular exercise program. Eat regular, healthy meals. Don't turn to alcohol or illegal drugs for relief.
  • Practice stress management. Learn techniques to manage your stress better. Unmanaged stress can lead to depression, overeating, or other unhealthy thoughts and behaviors.
  • Socialize. When you're feeling down, it can be hard to be social. Make an effort to connect with people you enjoy being around. They can offer support, a shoulder to cry on, or a joke. It may be enough to give you a little boost.
  • Take a trip. If possible, take winter vacations in sunny, warm locations.

So, as you can see, "cabin fever" is not something someone made up. It can be a serious condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder. But now you know what SAD is and how to prevent it. If you feel SAD coming on, follow some of our tips. With a little help, you'll be able to get through the winter with no problems.

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