Ask any Canadian how they feel about winter and you’re likely to get a negative response. Not only do we have to deal with the freezing cold, but there is also a serious lack of sunlight. Seasonal affective disorder, which we aptly call “SAD” for short, affects 2-3% of the Ontario population. The “winter blues” are a less severe form of SAD, which are present in 15% of the province. Read on to find out how to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder.
What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
There is a definite correlation between Seasonal Affective Disorder and living at northern latitude. Scientists don’t know the exact cause, but it likely has to do with our circadian rhythm. This is the biological clock that humans have. Our bodies are designed to be alert when the sun is shining, and sleeping when it’s dark outside. Ever since electricity was discovered, our bodies don’t need to do this anymore, however, our circadian rhythm still tells our bodies to be sleepy when it’s dark out. Since we experience several more hours of darkness in the winter, our bodies go into a sort of hibernation mode. Scientists have also found that with SAD there are irregularities in melatonin, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. No wonder winter can have such a big impact on our mood!
How do I know if I have Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder include: low energy, oversleeping, irritability, gaining weight, difficulty concentrating, avoiding social situations, overeating (especially carbs), and feelings of anxiety and despair. These symptoms can be debilitating, affecting professional lives and activities of daily living.
The most surprising thing I’ve learned about SAD is that the average duration is 5 months! Generally, the symptoms tend to start in November and last until March. That’s a long time to be feeling so down. It’s important to differentiate between SAD and conditions that present in a similar fashion, such as bipolar disorder and thyroid disease. Seasonal Affective Disorder can have symptoms that are identical to depression, so these two conditions can be hard to differentiate. The best way to tell if you have SAD is by looking at the timing. If symptoms recur for at least two consecutive winters without other explanation, then it is most likely to be Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Please note: If you are having any thoughts of suicide, it is very important that you tell a health care practitioner right away.
What is the treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Get the heck out of here! A vacation to a sunny destination can eliminate symptoms of SAD, but only for the time that you are gone. As soon as you’re back in cold, wintry Canada, the symptoms are likely to return. Besides, taking a holiday isn’t exactly the most cost-effective treatment, so let’s look at some other options. Small research trials have demonstrated that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be effective for Seasonal Affective Disorder. Naturopathic Doctors are trained in CBT, so be sure to talk to your ND about this option if you suffer from SAD.
If you want to make some changes at home that will help to alleviate SAD, try moving your furniture close to windows. Keep your curtains open, and trim any tree branches that may be blocking natural light from entering your home. I know it’s cold outside, but try to get outdoors as much as possible, even if it’s just a quick walk at lunch time. Exercise helps! Some of the most difficult but important things to do are to resist oversleeping and resist those cravings for carbohydrates. If you give in, you are only helping SAD. There are also several supplements and botanicals that can help with Seasonal Affective Disorder, so you may want to ask your ND about getting a prescription for these. If you think you may be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder and would like to discuss it further, book in with Dr. Corina Kibsey, N.D.
Image courtesy of: Noah Silliman