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What Is SAD And What You Can Do About It?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) will affect millions of people this fall and winter. As the days grow shorter, decreased daylight causes a hormonal imbalance leading to depression. Many SAD sufferers can be therapeutically treated simply and easily with bright light therapy. Natural sunlight and light therapy can help reestablish the body's circadian rhythm, the natural system that regulates the body's internal "clock".
Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D. chief of Environmental Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)(1) states that insufficient light leads to abnormal serotonin and melatonin levels. He has found that bright light therapy assists the brain in controlling the levels of the neurotransmitter, serotonin and the hormone, melatonin (1). In the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)(2), Dr. Rosenthal discusses the symptoms of SAD which include:
suppressed immune system function
inability to concentrate
withdrawal from relationships
lack of motivation
decreased sexual desire
Because of the immune system impairment, SAD may also cause increased absenteeism, lack of productivity, and tooth decay. Memory loss, irritability and difficulty getting out of bed are most likely components of depression. Carbohydrate craving is believed to be a result of impaired serotonin feedback mechanism (3). Although affecting both sexes, it is more common in women, threefold.
It's interesting to note that because we spend so much of our time indoors, and because most indoor lighting is inadequate; some highly sensitive people are prone to light deprivation depressions even in the summer. Also notable is that many women who suffer premenstrual syndrome (PMS) have been treated successfully by light therapy, which has been found to keep their serotonin/melatonin levels in proper proportion and thus alleviate symptoms. Using light, women treated for PMS frequently report less depression, less moodiness, better sleep, improved concentration, and less craving for sweets and carbohydrates.
SAD can be a seriously disabling illness, with some sufferers unable to function in winter without continuous treatment. SAD symptoms happen regularly each winter, starting between September and November and continuing until March or April. A definitive diagnosis of SAD is met when someone has experienced three or more winters of these symptoms. For most of us it's of a lesser intensity, just known as the winter blues or sub-syndromal SAD, occurring mainly during December, January and February.
A regular exercise program and walking outdoors have also been proven to lessen the symptoms of SAD. Often walking to work in the winter is helpful, not only for exercise but also for the exposure to sunlight. Proper diagnosis is essential. Depression requires professional help. When severe, your physician may feel antidepressant drug therapy is necessary.