When winter approaches and the days get shorter, do you get the blues, feel sluggish and have low energy? Do you crave sweets and carbohydrates and gain some weight? Do you sleep a lot and maybe have a little trouble concentrating?
Well, it is not necessarily all in your head. It could be a mild (subclinical) case of SAD, seasonal affective disorder, also known as the “winter blues.” SAD is a form of depression that affects people in winter in the mid to northern latitudes. The farther from the equator, the shorter the days and the greater the number of SAD cases.
Cause of SAD
The workings of SAD are not fully understood. But it is clear that SAD is a real illness, with possibly severe symptoms caused by inability to adjust to the shortage of light in winter. The body has an internal clock that is set to be active during daylight and to sleep at night. This clock is regulated, in part, by production of the hormone melatonin, in response to changes in your exposure to light.
Some people have just a touch of SAD, and it does not affect their ability to function normally. But others suffer from full-blown depression that requires treatment and lasts until the daylight periods begin to lengthen in early spring.
Mild cases of SAD may be treated with lifestyle changes, such as waking up at daybreak to increase your exposure to light. Regular aerobic exercise, especially when done outside, may be useful since exercise reduces stress and combats depression. Greater exposure even to normal indoor light may help, but this is different from the light therapy that is used to treat SAD.
Serious cases may need light therapy, maybe in combination with anti-depressant medications. Some doctors, but not all, report good results in treating SAD patients with light therapy. This treatment uses a specially designed light box, that shines very bright light (some boxes use full-spectrum light) through a diffusing filter.
The SAD patient sits in front of the light every day, usually for 15 to 30 minutes, typically in the morning or early evening. Since this is a medical treatment for a specific condition, you should use the light therapy as prescribed, and work together with your health professional to find the best formula for you. This is also important because side effects of light therapy can occur, although they are almost always minimal.