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Health Fusion: Don't let SAD drive your bus

When the days get shorter, some people's moods get darker. A short bout of the winter blues may be normal, but if those feelings last longer than a couple of weeks, you may be dealing with seasonal affective disorder. In this "Health Fusion" column, Viv Williams shares tips that may help you prevent this from of depression from driving your bus.

Seasonal Affective Disorder
SAD may set in during winter months
Viv Williams / Forum News Service
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ROCHESTER — Picture this: You're in a cozy cabin, stretched out on a couch under a fluffy blanket in front of a fire. Your cup of hot cocoa or tea warms your hands as you gaze out the window at the gentle snowfall that sparkles in the moonlight.

Sounds like a nice way to end a winter evening, right? Well, maybe not if it's only 5:30 PM and you struggle with symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that sets in when the days get short. If you have the condition, you may lose interest in doing activities you normally enjoy. Other symptoms may include sadness, being excessively sleepy, weight gain from craving carbohydrates, social isolation and feelings of helplessness or hopelessness.

"We don't want helplessness to drive our bus," says Dr. Sabine Schmid , a psychologist in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Minnesota. "We want to be in the driver's seat and say, 'OK, we can't do everything, but we can do this.'"

Schmid says that SAD is a serious condition that can disrupt lives. And when people are in the midst of symptoms, they often need help to get in the driver's seat so they can mitigate them.

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"SAD can be like a vicious circle," Schmid says."People may feel down and not want to do things, see people or leave the house. But then they have less sunlight and less opportunity for fun. They may then eat more, not sleep well, sleep more during the day. And feel worse about themselves."

Schmid says the causes of SAD aren't completely understood. But the condition is similar to other major depressive disorders in that it's related to neurochemical changes in the brain. She adds that SAD is triggered or associated with the change in daylight hours and is more common among people who live in northern areas.

"Sun exposure has a significant impact on our mood through various mechanisms," Schmid says. "For example, it helps our sleep/wake cycle and tells us when it is time to be active. Our brains help us adjust to seasonal changes in sunlight, but for people with SAD, the adjustment is not functioning optimally."

Schmid adds that low vitamin D levels and an excess of the hormone melatonin are also associated with SAD and may add to your feeling sleepy, tired and sluggish. The National Institute of Mental Health website notes that people with SAD may have a reduced activity of the brain chemical — or neurotransmitter — serotonin, which helps control your mood.

So, how can you get in the driver's seat instead of letting SAD drive you around all winter long? Schmid says the first thing to do is to get help.

"A good indicator of when to get help is if you feel stuck and cannot get yourself out of the vicious cycle," says Schmid. "We've all had sluggish days, tired days and days when we don't want to do anything. But when it becomes a pattern or it is disruptive, you may want to seek help. The diagnosis of SAD is made after two weeks of symptoms."

Schmid says treatment can work to both prevent and treat SAD, including the following lifestyle habits:

  • Keep your regular bedtime routine.
  • Exercise.
  • Eat a nutritious diet.
  • Stay connected with other people.
  • Check with your healthcare provider to make sure your vitamin D levels are adequate. If not, you may need supplements.

In addition to lifestyle adjustments, Schmid says other treatments include:

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  • Light therapy. Daily exposure to light boxes that are 10,000 LUX or more and that are filtered of harmful UV rays may help symptoms. People with certain eye conditions should not use light therapy, so Schmid recommends discussing this option with your health care provider.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • Antidepressant medication.

Schmid says the good news about SAD is that, for most people, the condition will end when the days get longer. But if your symptoms are such that you can't see that far ahead, seek help.
Vivien Williams is a video content producer for NewsMD and the host of "Health Fusion." She can be reached at vwilliams@newsmd.com.

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Viv Williams

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