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The truth about SAD – it isn’t winter blahs or cabin fever!

What do to about Seasonal Depression (SAD)

I don’t know SAD directly but I do know it personally. Debilitating is descriptive but hardly accurate. I’ve seen a family member repeatedly suffer unbearably over the years and to the point of such weakening that she was nearly incapacitated. For her, SAD starts after the holidays in later January, almost like clockwork. She begins to feel the dreaded increase of irritability and negativity then, kapow, something small, incidental and out of sorts triggers SAD. She wants to hunker down in hibernation, seclude herself in a room and not get out, avoiding all interactions. The profound lethargy makes her want to stay under covers and sleep all the time. She doesn’t even want to think because she can’t concentrate. She doesn’t care how she looks. She feels so unhappy that it takes monumental energy to do even basic things. For two weeks, SAD is severely at its worst – like someone is sitting on her chest and its hard to breathe or hold enough breath. Anxiety to near panic builds. As the snow gets less, the heaviness on her chest eventually does too. As her chest feels lighter and breathing becomes more normal, my niece knows SAD is nearing its bitter end. She starts to look forward to doing something anything again.

SAD is seasonal affective disorder, or seasonal depression. It isn’t, and far from, cabin fever! SAD is a debilitating disorder that, as the season changes, so do you. It usually starts in winter (late fall in anticipation of winter around the corner) and ends in spring. For many, it reoccurs every year and at the same time. About 4- 6 people out of every 100 in the U.S. suffer from it. Three-quarters are women, mostly in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. It started with my niece in her early 20s and has continued for nearly 10 years. Older adults are less likely to experience SAD.

Though SAD is most common during these your 20s, 30s, and 40s, it can also occur in children and adolescents. My sister has been an elementary school teacher for nearly thirty years. She’s seen children experiencing seasonal mood disorders too – much more irritable, easily distracted, and hungry all the time despite reduced energy and increased lethargy during the months of winter. The affects are even more severe with children who are already compromised with mood and biological disorders. She learned so much about SAD from Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal‘s book, Winter Blues – Everything you need to know to beat Seasonal Affect Disorder.

According to Psychology Today, the symptoms of SAD include many of the same symptoms of depression:

  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Lost interest in usual activities
  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • An inability to concentrate

However, it notes that the big difference is that sufferers of SAD stop experiencing these symptoms each spring before they reappear again in late fall.

SAD sufferers also say they sleep an average of 2.5 hours more in winter than they do during the summer. Most if us will sleep around 42 minutes longer in the winter.

So, what causes SAD? Lack of exposure to sunlight seems to be the key cause. It’s more common where seasonal changes are more extreme (i.e. at latitudes farther north or south of the equator) like Alaska – nearly 10% of Alaskans suffer from SAD as compared to 1% of those in Florida. You have to wonder about residents of Minneapolis, New York, Boston and the rest of the northeast during this crazy, severe winter!

And going back to sleep, a related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in your brain, melatonin, has been linked to SAD. Possibly associated with symptoms of depression, this hormone is produced at higher levels in the dark. So, when the days are shorter and darker, SAD sufferers are affected by the higher production of this hormone.

How is SAD treated? Light therapy has been used successfully for more than a decade to treat SAD. It involves spending an hour each morning sitting 2-3 feet in front of a light box device that contains fluorescent lights covered with a plastic screen to block UV-rays. Side effects are minimal and the treatment is highly effective. (Serotonin, the brain hormone associated with mood elevation, rises with exposure to bright light and falls with decreased sun exposure.) My niece admits she didn’t use the light therapy as recommended and didn’t receive any benefit. Good news is she plans on trying it again! I don’t know the costs of the light box or whether insurance covers the light box device, however check out these sources for more information.

In addition to light therapy, these are highly recommended self-helps for SAD sufferers:

  • Outdoors: Get outside in the natural daylight regardless if the sun is out or not. (A study of more than 450 women found that those who got the most light, particularly in the morning, reported better moods and sleep. Combining exercise with morning light exposure may amplify light’s beneficial effects on mood, sleep, and alertness.) Speaking of exercise…
  • Exercise: Regular physical activity lifts your spirits and boosts your mood. TRY (that’s the key here) 30 minutes a day/3 times a week of something physical that matches your mood. Mild exercise might be better than a complex, high-energy work out that requires focus and concentration. My niece suggests a simple, mindless, follow-the-leader exercise – she loves Richard Simmons, an easy, cheerful, inspiring, upbeat leader
  • Try and establish a  sleep schedule and keep to it – no sleeping in or going to bed too early.
  • Consider buying an artificial light for light therapy if you cannot avail of sunshine.
  • Avoid sugar: The body craves starchy and sweet foods more than usual during seasonal depression. Sugar has a detrimental impact on your brain function. (Check out another great book on this subject, The Sugar Blues, by William Dufty in1975). Stop taking aspartame or artificial sweeteners! Eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of raw foods and water.
  • If you do eat more sweets and starchy foods, try and keep protein in your diet as a balance.
  • Take a good Multi-Vitamin: Fuel the body with nutrients rich in the RDA of vitamins and minerals, including omega-3s/EFAs –
  • Remember omega-3s: Take a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat supplement daily in addition to that multi-vitamin. Omega-3s are the right kind of fats the brains needs now. People with lower blood levels of omega-3s are more likely to have depression symptoms and a more negative outlook than those with higher blood levels.
  • Vitamin D is CRUCIAL: Most Americans live in northerly climates void of direct sunlight for many long winter months resulting in our body NOT being able to make Vitamin D at all! Supplementing this vital nutrient is a necessity, particularly for the SAD sufferer and especially for the individual with SAD who is NOT using a light box. One study found that people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who had normal levels. Current research suggests high doses of Vitamin D with a recommended average of 1000 – 2000 IU daily.
  • Stay social: Stay involved with your support circle of friends and family especially the cheerful ones. My niece also says force yourself to MAKE PLANS to do something, anything to resist the powerful urge to shut down and shut in.


It takes a massive effort to do every little thing when you have SAD, according to my dear family member. I just want her, and you, to make it through this winter better than the one before.

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