January 13, 2015

Seasonal affective disorder: the winter blues

By Anna Sharratt

Craving carbohydrates, sleeping in, cancelling social engagements and generally feeling down? You may have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)  affects 2% of Canadians, according to Dr. Robert Levitan, senior scientist and research section head at The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

More of us -- about 3 to 5% -- suffer from a milder form of SAD, a depressive state that occurs when sunlight decreases, days grow shorter and temperatures plummet. In people who have SAD, the brain’s neurotransmitters, chemicals that regulate sleep, mood and appetite, do not function normally, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

Signs you might have seasonal affective disorder:

1. Excessive daytime sleepiness. Beginning as early as late August but more commonly November, people with SAD suffer from low energy levels and excessive fatigue. Getting up in the morning becomes an ordeal.

2. Carbohydrate and starchy food cravings. If you find yourself suddenly constantly hankering after a doughnut, bagel, cookie or mashed potatoes, and consuming many more of these foods while experiencing other SAD symptoms, you may have the condition.

3. Depressive thoughts. SAD essentially leads to a mild clinical depression, according to the CMHA.

4. Skipping social engagements. SAD sufferers often feel like hibernating, says Levitan, and forgo work events, parties or other social events.

5. Anxiety or despair. In some more serious cases of SAD, feelings of irritability, hopelessness and anxiety are present.

6. Packing on the pounds. If you gain more than a few pounds as you head into winter every year, SAD may be the culprit.

How to deal with seasonal affective disorder

Luckily, mild forms of SAD -- and even many severe cases -- do respond to treatment, such as light, drug or talk therapy.

The most common trick used to fool the body into believing it’s spring or summer is a specialized bright light that is filtered to eliminate dangerous UV rays. Levitan suggests sitting in front of it for half an hour each morning. “If people can get up at six or seven that’s even better,” he says, as the SAD lamp provides the extra “sunshine” your body is missing.

Consistency is key, says Levitan. “If you don’t use the light consistently, you change the signals your brain receives.” That means not using it at 8 a.m. one day and 10 a.m. the next, which he says could make SAD symptoms worse.

Other treatments that may offer relief are dietary changes, along with omega 3 and vitamin D supplements and frequent exercise, which produces the feel-good hormone serotonin. The amino acid tryptophan, which is now available in a pill form, also helps promote sleep and relaxation in many of Levitan’s patients.

Another idea is a dawn simulator, a half-globe lamp that slowly lights up to simulate the dawn. It turns on solely in the period before a person wakes up to reset the body’s clock, only on the darkest days of winter.

If these therapies fail to work, there are also antidepressants that can treat SAD, says Levitan, as well as psychotherapy. But he cautions that a visit to a doctor is critical before embarking on any treatment plan.

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