Many people notice a change in their energy and enthusiasm levels when summer changes to fall and fall to winter – it’s only natural that as the days get shorter and colder, we start thinking about spending our weekends cozying up with Netflix and endless cups of hot chocolate. But for some people, the change in mood is much more dramatic. If you find that you are tired, moody and uninterested in things you used to enjoy when fall and winter roll around, you might have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
SAD is a type of clinical depression that typically affects sufferers beginning in the autumn and lasts through the winter until spring. Many people suffer from the “winter blues,” a general loss of positivity during the winter months, but between 2 and 3 percent of Canadians – about one million people – suffer from the more severe SAD. (A smaller number of people suffer from seasonal depression that begins in the spring and lasts through the warmer months.)
SAD is more likely to affect women than men and typically begins in people over the age of 20. The symptoms of SAD are similar to those of many other mental and physical ailments, including other types of depression, bipolar disorder or even thyroid problems.
- Change in energy levels: feeling fatigued, oversleeping, having less energy
- Change in appetite or weight: craving sweet or starchy foods, gaining weight
- Change in mood: being irritable, feeling anxious or despairing, having trouble concentrating, avoiding social situations
If you experience the symptoms of SAD for at least two consecutive winters without any other explanation for the changes, make an appointment to talk to your family physician. Your doctor can evaluate your symptoms, make a diagnosis and help you get the treatment you need.
Although scientists have yet to confirm what causes SAD, some believe it to be related to the body’s reaction to seasonal changes in the amount of daylight. As a result, one of the most common treatments for SAD is phototherapy – that is, sitting in front of a special high-intensity light box for some time each day. Because the light used mimics natural daylight, it seems to have a positive effect on patients’ brain chemistry; most people see an improvement in their mood within two weeks.
Some people will also benefit from other treatments, often used in combination, including therapy or medication (such as antidepressants). If you think this would help you, talk to your doctor.
Beating the winter blues
Only 2 to 3 percent of Canadians suffer from SAD, but another 15 percent of us deal with the winter blues. If you are feeling low this winter – but not so low that it’s affecting your daily life – there are lots of things you can do to beat the winter blues.
- Eat well – A well-balanced diet that is high in fruits, vegetables and lean protein and low in those tempting high-fat, high-sugar carbohydrates will help you get the vitamins and minerals you need to stay healthy.
- Exercise regularly – Physical activity is known to help reduce stress and anxiety and increase your self-confidence. Exercising outside during the daytime exposes you to valuable daylight. It’s a simple as taking a brisk walk at lunch time, but we have lots of winter-specific exercise suggestions.
- Seek the light – Open the blinds and sit near the window during the daytime – and if it’s perpetually grey where you live, talk to your doctor about using a SAD lamp.
Remember, if you’re experiences the symptoms of SAD, your physician is available to help you. Talk to your doctor about strategies and treatment options that will help you feel like yourself again.
Your turn: Share your tips for dealing with SAD in the comment section below.