The shorter days at this time of year may leave many of us feeling down, but for some people it’s more than a simple case of the winter blahs.
The lack of sunlight that begins in late autumn can trigger a type of clinical depression for some people that can last until spring. Aptly referred to as SAD – seasonal affective disorder – this form of depression affects an estimated 10 million Americans (another 10 to 20% may have mild SAD) and up to six per cent of Canadians (another 15% of Canadians experience a milder form of SAD).
So if you’re feeling glum around this time of year, how can you tell if it’s just the winter doldrums or something more serious? Here are a few signs you may be suffering from SAD:
- Sleeping more than usual (up to two to four hours a day)
- Feeling lethargic (low energy levels)
- Craving foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Withdrawal from people and social activities
- A depressive mood that has occurred over at least two consecutive winters, alternating with a non-depressive mood in the spring and summer.
- Women are up to eight times as likely as men to report having SAD
- SAD tends to run in families
- SAD is more common among people who live in northern latitudes
(Source: Mood Disorders Association of Ontario)
Feeling blue on some days can be normal. But if you feel down for extended periods and this is coupled with difficulty getting motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, changes in sleep patterns or changes in appetite, it may be time to seek medical help. Be sure to tell your doctor about any symptoms you’re experiencing and how they’re impacting your daily life (for instance, if you’re missing work, having trouble getting out of bed, etc.)
Thankfully, there are treatment options available that may help if SAD is seriously interfering with your day-to-day life. For some people – especially those with milder cases of SAD – getting a daily dose of sunlight in the form of light therapy can work wonders.
This consists of regular, daily exposure to a “light box” that simulates high-intensity sunlight. Daily sessions are typically 30 to 60 minutes long and should be continued until there’s sufficient natural daylight (so until the spring.)
Light therapy is ideal for anyone who prefers not to (or is unable to) take antidepressant medication. Studies have even shown that this treatment is as effective as antidepressants in many cases of non-severe SAD, and a bonus is that side effects are also uncommon.
If light therapy doesn’t work or your case of SAD is more severe, antidepressant medication (such as Prozac) may be helpful. Just be sure to discuss the risks and benefits of taking this route with your doctor.
Another treatment option is cognitive behavioural therapy – this is a type of psychotherapy that’s been shown to be effective in the treatment of depression. You’ll need to get a referral for a psychologist who specializes in this area.
If you think you might have SAD and would like a second opinion or need help finding a specialist, remember that Best Doctors is always here to help.
 Psychology Today (http://www.psychologytoday.com/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder)
 Mood Disorders Association of Ontario (http://www.mooddisorders.ca/faq/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad)