It’s that time of year, the days are getting shorter and the nights are becoming longer. The sun is setting earlier in the day and rising later in the morning.
Fall began with the autumnal equinox September 23 which means almost equal amounts of daylight and nighttime. We progressively lose more sunlight as we move toward winter solstice on December 21.
Spring brings energy and vitality and as such, winter brings lethargy and hibernation. For many, this annual change and reduced daylight bring with it a form of depression called a seasonal affective disorder or SAD. SAD is often described as having a portable black cloud constantly following one around. Many sufferers report feeling sad, low, tearful, or hopeless.
SAD begins and ends at about the same time every year. Most people with SAD start to feel symptoms in the autumn, then all through the winter, sapping energy, making them feel moody and depressed. With a big chunk of our population suffering from this disorder, it is good to know the signs and get ahead of it.
SAD signs and symptoms may include:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having low energy
- Having problems with sleeping or oversleeping
- Experiencing weight gain and appetite changes
- Craving high carbohydrate foods
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide.
When light hits the back of the eye, messages go to the part of the brain that controls sleep, appetite, sex drive, temperature, mood, and If there isn’t enough light, these functions slow down. Some people seem to need a lot more light than others. If you work indoors or simply don’t get outside much, this could increase the risk of SAD.
Although many transitions the seasonal changes smoothly, unfortunately, many others don’t. Due to the decrease in sunlight, our circadian rhythm (24-hour body/mind cycle) is disrupted. This disruption causes a reduction of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood, memory, sleep, appetite, and other body/mind functions. The change in season can also disrupt the balance of the body’s melatonin, which also plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
It’s estimated that between 2-10% of Americans are affected and suffer in varying degrees from feeling gloomy to depression. It’s diagnosed four times more in women than men and is more common in those living farther from the equator.
Additionally, while depression is more common among young adults (seven out of ten depressed people are under 45), it does not spare children or the elderly. In the elderly, it often goes unnoticed because the symptoms (fatigue, loss of motivation, isolation) can be attributed to aging.
One study found that nine percent of those living in New England or Alaska struggled with SAD. As there is a crossover between SAD and other depression, it is always wise to discuss any feelings of low mood with your doctor. There are a few different ways to address SAD including.
- Light therapy*
- Talk therapy
Treatment should start in early autumn before symptoms start, and continue until spring. Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is the main treatment and past research has revealed that it could be useful for treating other types of depression.
Light therapy is effective in up to 85% of people. People with SAD need much more light to function normally than others do. The user sits in front of a lightbox so that bright light enters the eyes. Light treatment has to be used every day in winter. It usually takes three to four days to work and the effect wears off if it is not used for three to four days.
Light therapy can also be used on dark days in summer. As a matter of fact, SAD is actually directly associated with a little known ‘contemporary’ epidemic caused by our indoor lifestyle.
Unwittingly, the lack of natural light in conjunction with too much artificial light disrupts brain chemistry and circadian rhythms and is contributing to many adverse health issues and some are quite serious — obesity, depression, fatigue, sleep & eating disorders as well as breast, prostate and colon cancer. This silent epidemic is called Mal-illumination.
*People with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), retinal disease, photosensitive skin conditions, or on medications should not use light therapy without checking with their doctor.