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Healthy Outlook

Don't Let Seasonal Affective Disorder Ruin Your Winter

By Gerold Loenicker, LMFT

Thursday, October 30, 2014

As the days grow shorter and the nights colder, many of us look forward to snow, holidays or favorite wintertime foods.

But for some, the shifting seasons can mean misery.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or "SAD," is the clinical name for a form of depression that affects about 5 percent of the population. As the name implies, it follows a seasonal pattern and is usually triggered by the relative lack of sunlight during colder months.

People with SAD may feel sluggish or irritable, hopeless or disinterested. Some chronically oversleep, or experience changes in appetite. Some may drink more heavily, or use drugs.

The winter blues can be serious if not treated, and even mild cases can be disruptive during a time of year that many already find stressful for other reasons.

Talk to your healthcare provider if these symptoms describe you. The more we learn about it, the more we recognize that the winter blues is not all in our heads.

While we do not know the exact causes of SAD, research suggests that reduced sunlight affects our internal clock and mood rhythms, and can cause levels of a neurotransmitter called serotonin to drop in the body. That can trigger depression, and also imbalance levels of melatonin, a hormone that helps control our sleep-and-wake cycles.

Many animals experience changes in winter - hibernation, for example - that are adaptations to environments where food is scarce part of the year. Humans too may carry a trait that helped our ancestors conserve energy during winter, triggered by a reduction in sunlight.

Regardless of the cause, SAD is treatable. Some have found relief through light therapy, which involves systematic exposure to certain kinds of light to ease the symptoms.

But there is more to light therapy than sitting under a lamp, so develop a treatment plan with your doctor before trying it. Talk therapy and medication have also proven to be effective forms of treatment.

Maintaining a healthy sleeping schedule also helps.

Between Daylight Saving Time ending and the nights growing longer, winter can confuse our bodies. We need regular sleep - going to bed and rising at regular times - because our sleeping patterns affect brain activity, hormone production and other biological processes. Our internal clocks are influenced by the sun, so making an effort to stay on schedule is a great way to combat SAD.

In fact, sticking to a schedule of rising early to exercise would be ideal, even if it is dark outside. Physical activity stimulates production of the same mood-enhancing chemicals we lack when depressed. It may take extra willpower, but the results are well worth it.

Watching what we eat and drink is also important. SAD can affect appetite, particularly by increasing cravings for high-carbohydrate foods. It is also no surprise that people living northern latitudes, where winters are most dark, tend to drink more alcohol than those in other parts of the world.

So keep an eye on yourself and your loved ones, and don't be quick to dismiss the winter blues. There is help available for Seasonal Affective Disorder, and no reason to suffer alone.

Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at theairdoctor@gmail.com. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.
About the Author
Gerold Loenicker supervises mental health prevention & early intervention programs for Contra Costa Behavioral Health Services.