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Shedding Light on SAD

It’s not just houseplants that wither from lack of sunlight in the wintertime. People do too.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) strikes roughly 5 percent of the adult population in the United States. Only 20 percent of these, however, require medical attention.

Though cures and causes of seasonal affective disorder are hotly debated, many doctors and therapists, including two from the Bay Area Mental Health Center (BAMHC) in Washburn, have honed in on some accepted theories and ways to manage this major form of depression.

“Seems the further north you are, or further south of the equator, it tends to be an issue,” said Duane Majeres, a licensed psychologist at BAMHC who hails from Huron, S.D. “There’s no one cause, but there’s the assumption that it has to do with lack of light.”

Other possibilities, he said, include low levels of vitamin D, genetic predisposition, and also a tendency toward depression in the first place.

Mayo Clinic adds to that list: age as well as natural chemical makeup — like serotonin which affects moods, and melatonin which plays a role in sleep patterns.

“There are four times more cases of women than men,” said Barb Snyder, another licensed psychologist at BAMHC.

“Men do suffer from SAD,” Majeres said. “When they do, they tend to experience it more severely.”

He also said there’s a rare form of summertime SAD, as soon as heat and humidity set in. The symptoms for both conditions vary widely.

According to the Mayo Clinic, fall/winter SAD emulates hibernation, with loss of energy, a heavy feeling in the arms and legs, social withdrawal, oversleeping, appetite changes with cravings for foods high in carbohydrates, difficulty concentrating, anxiety and hopelessness.

Sound like a bear in a cave? Maybe that’s where mankind would prefer to be instead of rushing around in hard-to-start cars in the morning, battling the elements. But unfortunately society won’t allow hibernation.

Perhaps adopting the Navy SEALs’ motto at this point would be a good choice: “Adapt to the situation, overcome the obstacles.”

Adapting to winter in therapeutic terms means bringing more light into the cave. Bigger windows, open curtains, maybe even a HappyLight, a lamp that simulates natural daylight. Many therapists agree that the use of light therapy, also called phototherapy, has proven to be effective in many SAD cases.

“Therapeutic lights, if started early enough in the fall, seem to prevent the severity, if not greatly reduce SAD,” Snyder said.

It only takes 20 to 30 minutes a day under the gaze of these full-spectrum lamps, she said. You won’t get a tan, but you might improve your mood. Best to consult a specialist about light therapy first, however, to make sure you’re purchasing the right light.

Spring/summer SAD acts a bit differently than its chillier counterpart. Symptoms include insomnia, irritability, agitation, weight loss, poor appetite and anxiety. Obviously, lack of light is not the issue. Majeres said it’s usually because certain body types don’t cope well with heat, coupled with a tendency toward depression anyway.

The two therapists at BAMHC said it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between SAD and other forms of depression. If severe enough, no matter what kind of depression it is, antidepressants might need to be prescribed along with psychotherapy.

The Mayo Clinic lists a batch of lifestyle remedies practiced at home that could also be useful to SAD sufferers. Besides letting in the sunlight, going outside and soaking up the rays directly on the skin makes a difference, even if it’s cloudy. And, of course, everyone knows that moods improve with exercise. But bears don’t like to get off the couch. Luckily it gets easier the more you do it.

“There seems to be a link for some people with SAD having a low level of vitamin D,” Snyder said. “Exactly how that’s interacting with the body causing depression is still being researched.”

She said some people respond favorably to increased levels of vitamin D.

Both therapists agreed that other factors could help lessen the symptoms of SAD, such as getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, avoiding alcohol and elicit drugs, and most important, talking to someone if you feel depressed.

“If a person is beginning to feel some depression, they should talk about their feelings with someone,” Majeres said, “and spend as much time as possible around individuals who care about them and who are positive. The ultimate solution for SAD is to take a long vacation where there’s plenty of sunshine.”

This is not always possible, however. If you can’t afford the flight to Belize, go for a HappyLight instead. Invite a friend over, flip the switch on, put umbrellas in your Italian sodas and tell each other your woes.

Snyder agreed with Majeres.

“Talking to people that care about you, or to a professional, is helpful for people with SAD to express their feelings and concerns about what’s happening,” Snyder said. “It’s important to learn about the illness, to realize it is indeed an illness, not something lacking in one’s character.”

The doors are always open at BAMHC. There are two offices — one in Washburn, one in Ashland — and more than a half-dozen therapists to choose from. For appointments, call (715) 373-2233 or (800) 266-9095.

When the shy sun slips behind the clouds, many people in the Northland chose to get creative. Other ways to combat the SAD symptoms: write or tell a rollicking tale, sing or compose a song to rival the blue jays, or create a painting of a bright sun that never sets.

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