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SAD got you down?
Seasonal Affective Disorder can be debilitating

By Danielle Komis· 340-2447

As cold temperatures begin to set in during the fall and winter months, many people find themselves feeling sluggish and down. For those who have recently lost a loved one or who are feeling lonely, the holidays also can trigger those same sensations.

While these “winter blues” can be normal and relatively common, for some people, the feelings go beyond that and interfere with normal functioning.

In these cases, Seasonal Affective Disorder may be the culprit.

“This isn’t just being stressed because you don’t have enough money to buy everything you need (for the holidays),” said Sue Brantley, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Morgan County. “That’s not what this is. This is a diagnosable disorder.”

SAD is a type of depression that typically occurs in the winter and prompts feelings of depression, lethargy, fatigue, cravings for sweets and starches, headaches, sleep problems and irritability.

The cause of the disorder is unclear, though many experts believe it is tied to a lack of sunlight, which seems to cause normal body rhythms to go awry.

SAD more commonly affects people in northern latitudes in winter, as well as women and young adults. The average age of onset is between 18 and 30.

“It’s a fairly prevalent illness,” said Dr. John Vincent Davis, a Hartselle psychiatrist. “Most people (with SAD) start getting depressed from late September to early or mid-December. A smaller group has the depressive period from mid to late January to early summer. What differentiates them from other types of depression is the timing of their symptoms.”

Vincent noted that people with a Northern European ancestry also tend to be more susceptible to SAD.

A debilitating disorder

For some patients, SAD can be extremely debilitating. Davis said one of his patients missed work from mid-October until February for five years because of SAD.

“When it hits you in the face that blatantly, it’s hard to miss it,” he said.

After the patient began light therapy, however, she rapidly made progress and began functioning normally again, he said.

In light therapy, a common therapy recommended for those suffering with SAD, patients use specialized lights — usually in the morning — to fool the body into thinking winter is over.

“It fools our biological clock into thinking it’s springtime or summertime, so we start feeling better,” Davis said. “The light falling on the eye on the retina helps produce an antidepressive effect.”

Blue wavelength lights and lights that are at least 10,000 lux in intensity are considered the most effective lights for treating SAD.

However, for patients with mild forms of SAD, walking outside in the mornings for about an hour may be enough to see an improvement, said Amy Hudson, a therapist at The Enrichment Center in Decatur.

If they work in an office, SAD sufferers also are encouraged to place their desk near a window to increase their exposure to natural light. These techniques also can be used at home.

Hudson said exercising is important for a SAD sufferer, because it naturally releases mood-boosting endorphins and will help keep weight in check since SAD sufferers often crave sweets and carbohydrates.

For some patients, antidepressants may be prescribed in conjunctions with the other treatments, as well as psychotherapy.

“You want to hit it as hard as you can because it can be a very devastating illness,” Davis said.

Davis said he tends to see an increase in patients in December and January, because by then the patients have “suffered enough” to decide to make the trip to the psychiatrist.

“By then, they’ve been suffering for several weeks or a couple of months,” he said.

Do you have SAD?

  • Are you fatigued?
  • Do you have a lack of interest in normal activities?
  • Are you withdrawing socially?
  • Are you craving foods high in carbohydrates?
  • Are you gaining weight?
  • Do these symptoms usually appear in the fall and winter?
  • If you have some or all of these symptoms, visit a mental health professional to receive a proper diagnosis.

    SAD often can be misdiagnosed as hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, infectious mononucleosis, and other viral infections, so proper evaluation is important.

    Source: American Psychiatric Association

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