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Seasonal affective disorder

More than just winter blues

Created date

January 25th, 2011

Some people love winter: brisk temperatures, falling snow, a warm fire. But many people don t. Some may feel a little down, waiting for spring to arrive. Others experience a significant change in mood with the change of seasons. This condition is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and sufferers may sleep too much, have little energy, crave sweets and starchy foods, or just feel depressed. Other symptoms may include withdrawing from family or friends or not being as active as usual, says Dean Smith, R.N., B.S.N., director of nursing for hospital services at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital in Baltimore, Md. Though symptoms can be severe, they usually clear up. More common during winter months, a less common type of SAD can affect some people in the summer. According to the American Psychiatric Association, SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and a lack of sunlight in winter. SAD, in fact, is more common in the northern U.S. As seasons change, people experience a shift in their biological internal clock that can cause them to be out of step with their daily schedule.

No happy holidays

Although the winter holidays are usually a cause for celebration, some people may feel depressed because they can t enjoy holidays like they used to due to illness or disability, Smith says. At that time of year, some people feel sad as they reflect on their lives, Smith explains. They ve finished with their careers, raised a family, and may have some trouble winding down. Many people have family members who live so far away that they can t get together because of distance or bad weather, says Leslie Rigali, D.O. Or some people may simply not want to disrupt their families holidays because of a medical condition that requires extra care. People with an underlying depression may get even more depressed during or after the holidays with the onset of colder temperatures and less sunlight, Rigali adds.

Different treatments for different people

Treatment for SAD is similar to treatment for depression and can include medication, counseling, dietary changes, stress management, or even moving to a sunny climate during cold months of the year. A light therapy box may help some people. It gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. Light therapy is thought to affect brain chemicals linked to mood, easing SAD symptoms. Light boxes have also been used for other conditions, like sleeping disturbances, Rigali says. Treatment should start with your primary doctor, but usually some counseling with a mental health professional is needed, she adds. Anyone with a chronic health condition or who has had previous emotional problems may be more at risk for SAD, Smith says. Having an active social network and good support from friends and family may help protect you. SAD needs to be taken seriously, Smith adds. So if you think you have the winter blues, see your doctor.

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