Well, here it comes again. This year, the clocks “fall back” on November 6, 2016 which means we get an extra hour of sleep, right? Maybe, but it also means that there will be less and less light during the day—and losing light affects our bodies. Many people chalk up feeling blue in winter as simply a fact of cold weather and lack of sunshine. But it turns out that our sadness may be clinical aka Seasonal Affective Disorder—or SAD.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
- Here are the stats: 4 to 6 per cent of people may have a winter depression that is clinically referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Another 10 to 20 per cent may simply have a mild form of SAD
- SAD is four times more common in women than in men
- Although some children and teenagers get SAD, it usually doesn’t start in people younger than age 20
- Your chance of getting SAD goes down as you get older
- SAD is also more common the farther north you go. For example, it’s seven times more common in Washington State than in Florida.
- In most cases, seasonal affective disorder symptoms appear during late fall or early winter and go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. However, some people with the opposite pattern have symptoms that begin in spring or summer. In either case, symptoms may start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses.
The Most Common Symptoms of SAD
How do you know if you’ve got a form of SAD? These are some signs to watch out for this season.
- Loss of energy
- Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
- Social withdrawal
- Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Difficulty concentrating
How do you treat SAD?
Many people with SAD will find that their symptoms respond to a very specific treatment called bright light therapy. For people who are not severely depressed and are unable or unwilling to use antidepressant medications, light therapy may be the best initial treatment option.
Light therapy consists of regular daily exposure to a “light box” that artificially simulates high-intensity sunlight. Practically, this means that a person will spend approximately 30 minutes sitting in front of this device shortly after they awaken in the morning. If patients do not improve, a second exposure of 20-30 minutes may be added in the early afternoon. Treatment usually continues from the time of year that a person’s symptoms begin, such as in fall, on a daily basis throughout the winter months. Because light boxes are created to provide a specific type of light, they are expensive and may not be covered by insurance. Unfortunately, having lots of lamps in one’s house and spending extra time outside is not as effective as this more expensive treatment.
Side effects of light therapy are uncommon and usually reversible when the intensity of light therapy is decreased. The most commonly experienced side effects include irritability, eyestrain, headaches, nausea and fatigue.
Scientific studies have shown light therapy to be very effective when compared to placebo and as effective as antidepressants in many cases of non-severe SAD. Light therapy may also work faster than antidepressants for some people with notable effects beginning within a few days of starting treatment. Other people may find that it takes a few weeks for light therapy to work, which can also be the case for most people who take antidepressant medications. Of course, you shouldn’t consider treatment with antidepressant medication without discussing the benefits and risks with your doctor.
Finally, a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, a good diet and a strong social network, is also likely to help you cope with SAD.
Dr. Sanam Hafeez is a Neuro-Psychologist in NYC who treats patients in her practice who display and express mood changes once October rolls around.