Many people who live in the northern latitudes experience the winter blues to some extent. Some can muddle through the lethargy, fatigue and lack of motivation felt during autumn and winter. For those suffering from SAD, it is difficult to make it through the dark season.
Seasonal affective disorder or SAD is a form of depression that occurs mostly during the fall and winter months, when days shorten and sunlight decreases. One of the characteristics of this particular form of depression is its seasonal aspect. In many of the articles dealing with this subject, you will also find the expressions “winter depression” and “winter blues”. Nightshift workers or people who work or live in a poorly or badly lit place can also suffer from SAD, even during summer. Usually, women tend to suffer from this type of depression more than men, but children and teenagers can also suffer from this problem. The depressive symptoms appear more often during the fall months and tend to disappear come late winter or early spring.
The seasonal onset of this depression seems to occur in the late Summer or Fall, especially in northern latitudes, when the days grow shorter. It subsides in the Spring when the weather improves and the days grow longer. This depression is often accompanied by general sluggishness, irritability, carbohydrate craving and reduced libido. It is important, however, to consider that the seasonality may be caused by other factors, notably psychological (eg. the return to school in the Fall and the anticipation of Summer vacation in the Spring). For this reason, it is always a good idea to consult with a health professional. If you do not know of any, please send a email or call us for our free referral to experienced clinicians in your area.
The magnitude of seasonal difficulties may vary from one person to another. For SAD sufferers, it is a relief to know that depression is no longer linked to a weakness of character, but to an alteration of our brain chemistry.
Many people treated by Dr Norman Rosenthal at the NIMH (National Institute Mental Health) in Maryland, USA have told how, prior to being diagnosed with SAD, they felt lazy, worthless, and immature. Just knowing that the disease has a name, a description and that there is an affordable and effective non-invasive treatment, is a relief in itself.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
- Feeling tired, depressed or sad
- Increased appetite
- Craving for carbohydrates and starchy foods
- Weight gain
- Sleeping more than usual
- Social withdrawal
- Lack of interest in usual activities
- Inability to concentrate, to focus
- Inability to meet deadlines
- Loss of sexual desire
- Body aches and pains (several people have the feeling that they have a cold all winter long)
Take the Seasonal Affective Disorder Quiz to see if you have the symptoms of SAD…
Anyone who is suffering from depression must consult a qualified health professional and SAD sufferers are not an exception. Although a self-diagnosis seems relatively easy to make, other conditions can be similar to SAD. These problems must be considered and eliminated before a SAD diagnosis is made.
Chemical response to light:
There is a medical model to explain how the seasonal changes can cause SAD. According to this “model”, the changes of the cerebral functions are considered in the same way as any other organ’s deficiencies -the pancreas in diabetes for example. The diabetic’s pancreas produces too little insulin; the SAD sufferers pineal gland produces too much melatonin. The diabetic is helped with insulin; the person with SAD is helped through light therapy.
Important Factors: Diet and Exercise in Seasonal Affective Disorder
For SAD sufferers, the nutrition and sleep routines vary a great deal between summer and winter. In winter, those afflicted have a tendency to eat too much, especially carbohydrates and starchy foods, and gain weight. Although they may lose weight in summer, these people have a tendency to accumulate additional excess pounds each year. As years go by, it can result in obesity. SAD sufferers also need to sleep more than usual : even after a 10 to 12 hour night of sleep, they sometimes still feel tired and feel like they are dragging themselves along. The resulting inactivity also causes weight gain.
Dieting and exercising must be considered as important factors for SAD sufferers, not only because they can have a positive effect on their mood, but also because they have beneficial effects on SAD itself. Research has shown that gaining or losing weight in a cyclic way can be particularly bad for an individual’s health. In spite of all its benefits, light therapy may disappoint those who hope to automatically lose weight once they feel better. For this reason, dieting and exercising must be part of a program for SAD sufferers.
Although light therapy diminishes the appetite and the weight gain, often it is only partially effective, and sometimes, exercising is not enough. The best solution is to watch what you eat.
In his book Winter Blues: Seasonal Affective Disorder: What It Is and How to Overcome It, Dr Norman Rosenthal mentions that the following three dietary approaches offer the best perspectives for SAD sufferers:
- High-carbohydrate, reduced-calorie diets
- The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet
- The Paleolithic Diet: Balancing carbohydrates with protein
A dietician may be of great help to personalize a diet. It is also possible to combine different elements of these approaches in order to create a dietary program that works for a particular individual.
There is more and more evidence that regular aerobic exercise benefits depressed people in general. For those who suffer from SAD, if these activities imply more lighting, either outdoors or in front of a lamp, the antidepressant effect may be even greater. If people chose an activity only on the basis of its aerobic properties or its therapeutic value, there is little chance that they will stick to it for a long time. It is important to choose a motivating activity, which brings pleasure and satisfaction. To persevere and motivate oneself further it is useful to find someone who can share in this activity with you.
According to Dr Edward R. Laskowski, M.D., a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist and co-director of the Sports Medicine Center at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.USA:
“Regular aerobic exercise releases endorphins, your body’s natural painkillers. Endorphins also reduce stress, depression and anxiety.”
- Article by NOSAD staff (National Organisation for Seasonal Affective Disorder)
- Winter Blues: Seasonal Affective Disorder: What It Is and How to Overcome It by Norman E. Rosenthal, MD
- Seasonal Affective Disorder: Who Gets It, What Causes It, How to Cure It by Angela Smyth
- Parent’s Guide to Childhood and Adolescence (The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) by Patricia Gottlieb Shapiro
- Helping Your Depressed Child by Lawrence L. Kerns, MD with Adrienne B. Lieberman