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Don’t Have a SAD

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— November 15, 2017

Don’t Have a SAD

  • Short winter days and less light create the perfect storm for seasonal affective disorder—SAD. If you feel more down during the late fall and early winter months, you may have it. Before cheering up your SAD self, though, be sure to get an official diagnosis. Here’s more on the topic.
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How Many People Have SAD?
Some 10 million Americans will suffer from SAD each year, says Ivy Branin, ND, a naturopathic doctor at Simplicity Health Associates in New York City. “About 4% to 6% of people report seasonal depression and 10% to 20% may have more mild forms of seasonal depression,” Branin says. “Of the reported cases, about 6% are severe enough to require hospitalization.”

Can You Get SAD in Sunny Climates?
While you are more likely to get SAD in places farther away from the equator, it is possible to get SAD in sunny climates, says Branin. “It is far less common,” she says. But it is still possible.

Feeling Less SAD
“Exercise and healthy eating have enormous benefits, and yet these are exactly the behaviors that sometimes seem hardest for people in winter,” Schlozman says. Try for 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week. (Schlozman adds, “If you can get to a sunny climate, even for a few days, then do it.”) Branin suggests eating lean protein, high-fiber carbs and plenty of produce. This diet supports stable blood sugar, which makes for better moods, and provides amino acids, which the body uses to make the mood-mellower serotonin. Hit the water, too; indoor heat can cause dehydration, which can make depression worse. Full-spectrum light mimics outdoor light and helps restore day/night rhythm. Branin says it has “been shown to help with thyroid function, which helps with metabolism and cognition.” You can buy a lightbox or, as a cheaper option, full-spectrum lightbulbs; light therapy should show results within four days. Branin also suggests cod liver oil, which delivers both vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. Vitamin D has been shown to improve the mood of people with SAD and the omega-3 fats may help ease symptoms.

Who Gets SAD?
Schlozman says anyone can get SAD. However, he adds, “Current data based on the criteria used for SAD suggests that people with a family or personal history of depression or bipolar disorder are at higher risk. To this end, the syndrome tracks with all other kinds of depression, and depression can be diagnosed appropriately—though perhaps rarely— in people as young as toddlers.” Branin agrees that SAD can strike anyone, but says it’s about four times more common in women than in men. The disorder typically begins around age 20 and the risk for getting it decreases in elderly people; SAD occurs only rarely in children and teens.

What Are the Symptoms of SAD?
“SAD presents similar to other types of depression, but what sets it apart is the timing of symptoms,” explains Branin; it tends to start in the late fall or December and dissipate in May. Some basic symptoms include changes in appetite (generally with an increased craving for sweet or starchy foods) weight gain, heaviness in the arms or legs, decrease in energy, tendency to oversleep, difficulty concentrating, irritability, increased sensitivity to social rejection, avoidance of social situations or not wanting to go out, and even suicidal thoughts. Schlozman adds that people with SAD can also feel guilty as well as show decreased interest in activities they usually enjoy.

How Is SAD Diagnosed?
If you think you may have SAD, consult with a general or psychiatric practitioner to see if “the symptoms are getting in the way of your daily functioning,” says Schlozman. Branin adds that getting a diagnosis is crucial; the problem may be a deeper-rooted depression or even another medical condition such as hypothyroidism. “A mental health professional like a psychologist or licensed social worker might be the best place to start. A medical doctor would be advisable as well to rule out thyroid problems or vitamin D deficiency,” Branin says.

One Person’s SAD Story
Kris Williamson, 34, of Baltimore, experienced SAD symptoms during his teen years but wasn’t officially diagnosed until his early 20s. “When daylight hours begin to shorten, I can feel my mood go south,” he says. “The way I try to prevent it is by using my UV light and taking my antidepressants regularly.” Williamson exercises when the depression isn’t too debilitating and will do yoga. Because his apartment doesn’t get a lot of natural light, he tries to get outside as much as possible when it’s not overly cold. He also keeps a daily journal to express his feelings.

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