Light therapy can be effective with SAD

The gifts are unwrapped, the holiday gatherings concluded, and several more cold weeks of winter remain. If hibernation has set in, it may be hard to find the motivation to get off the sofa and out from under that warm, woolly blanket. But, if your post-holiday blues won’t budge, you could have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a condition that occurs during the winter.

SAD is a disorder that affects between 4 and 6 percent of people in the United States — about 10 million Americans — and another 10 to 20 percent of the population may experience a milder form of winter blues. Many more Americans with SAD remain undiagnosed and untreated, according to health experts.

SAD can affect anyone, but it is more common among women, people with a family history of SAD, and people who live in areas where winter days are short and there are significant changes in the amount of daylight between the seasons. SAD is most commonly diagnosed in people between the ages of 15 to 55.

Symptoms of SAD include:

  • Feeling sad, grumpy, moody or anxious.
  • Loss of interest in activities usually enjoyed.
  • An increase in appetite, particularly a craving for starchy carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta.
  • Weight gain.
  • An increased need for sleep and feeling drowsy during the day.
  • Inability to concentrate.
  • Increased sensitivity to social rejection, and avoidance of social situations.

Symptoms typically begin in September or October and end in April or May. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish whether you have a case of the winter doldrums, SAD or depression, because many of the symptoms are similar. The key difference is the time of year, length of time that you feel down, and the symptoms that accompany your “funk.”

The differences with SAD are that, unlike depression, symptoms come and go with the seasons. If your depressed mood lifts with the onset of spring and longer, light-filled days, you may have SAD rather than depression. A major depressive disorder has the same emotional and physical symptoms as SAD, but the majority of those symptoms will persist for at least two weeks or more — often several months — and are not affected by the time of year or changing of seasons.

Conversely, depression is generally caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors. It can also be triggered by trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship or any stressful situation — but sometimes there is no apparent cause.

Health experts are unsure what causes SAD, but it is thought that the lack of sunlight during the shorter winter days disrupts the body’s sleep cycle, circadian rhythms — physical, mental and behavioral changes in the body that follow a 24-hour cycle, prompted by changes in light and darkness in the environment — and the brain’s production of a “feel-good” chemical known as serotonin that affects mood, and melatonin, which affects sleep.

Treatment for SAD includes light therapy, exercise, medication or counseling. Light therapy is simple, and involves sitting in front of a light box — no bigger than a hardback book — or wearing a light visor for about a half-hour or longer, usually in the morning. Other light therapy uses dawn simulation, with a dim light activated by a timer that turns on in the morning when you awaken and brightens over time, to mimic the sunrise.

It’s believed that light therapy helps to reset the brain’s internal clock, restore the body’s sleep/wake cycle and regulate other daily rhythms — which, in turn, relieve the depression-like symptoms of SAD.

If you can’t kick those feelings of post-holiday blahs, talk to your doctor. Help is available.

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