Winter is upon us. It’s dark when we go to work and dark when most of us get home. Some of us get the winter blues and find it takes extra effort to stay positive. For others, the impact is more devastating.
These people have what is known as seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD. According to Virginia Mason psychiatrist Marty Hoiness, MD, SAD is a form of depression and a recognized psychiatric disorder. The disorder begins in the fall and ends in the spring, negatively affecting sleep patterns, appetite and the ability to concentrate. SAD sufferers can become despondent, even suicidal.
Some people suppose that SAD is a reaction to cold, but it’s actually a reaction to reduced light. Our biological clocks are set for a 24-hour cycle, and they need sunlight to stay on a regular cycle. Early morning light resets our clock, keeping it on a 24-hour cycle
There are several treatment options for SAD sufferers: exercise, light therapy and for more severe symptoms, medication.
Adding exercise to your day can make a big difference. Don’t let bad weather be an excuse. The next time you’re at the mall, walk from one end to the other and see if you don’t feel an improvement. Exercise is a natural stimulator of many important “mood” hormones, including serotonin and dopamine. Don’t think of exercise as a chore to lose weight or prevent heart disease “someday.” Fifteen to 20 minutes of exercise each day will restore the feel-good hormones like serotonin that are reduced when there isn’t enough sunlight.
For light therapy, the individual sits or works near a light therapy box or lamp. The bright light mimics natural outdoor light and increases brain chemicals linked to mood and other SAD symptoms.
“Both bright light therapy and dawn simulators, an alarm clock that mimics the rising sun, have been shown to be effective in treating SAD,” says Dr. Hoiness. “Antidepressants can also be used to treat the disorder, but the best treatment is physical exercise.”
Is winter getting you down? Tell your Virginia Mason provider how you are feeling. Together, you can find a solution for your winter blues.