Don't Be SAD This Winter

By Sara Vigneri

Cold, brisk air. Quiet snowfalls. Sitting by the cozy fireplace. The winter season is a time to settle indoors, spend time with family and friends and enjoy skiing and sledding. But for some, the dark chilly winter days usher in a melancholy that physicians refer to as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.  Sure, we all feel a little blue at times and winter is rife with opportunities for testing our mental fortitude – the holidays, cabin fever, heating bills – but there is a difference between feeling sad or stressed and feeling SAD.

Unfortunately, there is no test for SAD; it’s up to your doctor to determine if you are indeed suffering from the disorder. But there are things to look out for – gaining too much weight, sleeping too much, feeling zapped of energy and irritable.  But just because you feel moody in the winter does not mean you suffer from SAD. “Everyone gets depressed by bad weather,” says Dr. Sheikh Afzal, M.D., a psychiatrist with Mood & Memory Associates in Emmaus. “But if your mood begins to affect your work or relationships, that’s when it would be considered Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a type of depression and is treated as such.” In other words, if feeling blue means you can’t get out of bed to get to work, or can’t enjoy time with friends and family, you might be suffering from SAD.

Why is it that some people are simply moody when winter creeps in while others are debilitatingly depressed? There is no clear answer to what causes SAD, but if you are already predisposed to depression, then you are more likely to suffer from SAD, and women are more likely than men to experience various types of depression including SAD.

The sun is a natural source of Vitamin D and the dark, gloomy winter months can leave you low on this important nutrient. “While Vitamin D is also found in a few foods like sardines and milk, the sun is a major source,” says Elizabeth Khan, M.D., medical director of Tilghman Medical Center in Allentown. “The connection between Vitamin D and depression is not completely clear but research has made the connection between low levels of D and higher rates of depression.”

You pharmacist or doctor can help determine if you are deficient in Vitamin D. “When people come in with SAD I first ask them get their Vitamin D and omega-3 levels checked from their physician and then we help them with nutritional supplements to boost their levels,” says Robert E. Hartzell Jr., R.Ph., owner of Hartzell’s Pharmacy in Catasauqua.

One common and successful treatment for SAD is the use of light therapy, but sticking your head under a chandelier won’t do the trick. What your body is craving is the bright light of the sun, and there are various products on the market that are able to safely provide this specific kind of light. For example, Philips makes a product called goLITE BLU, which is a small panel you place nearby and your body soaks in the light without looking at the lamp. In fact, a study found that 70 percent of users felt increase in energy levels after two weeks of use for 30 minutes a day. The key is in the blue light which when absorbed affects regulators in the body that control our biological clock. This is helpful in the winter because the lack of sunlight affects our biological clocks and results in depressed mood and lack of energy.

If you want to really pack a punch, try exercising near a light box. Research has shown that the combination of exercise and light therapy (or even better, exercising outdoors) is effective at combating SAD. As hard as it may be to motivate yourself in the winter to exercise, your body and your brain will thank you for it. Other treatment options range from drug therapy and psychotherapy to more simple options such as increasing time spent outdoors or socializing with friends.

If you think you are suffering from SAD, speak with your family physician. According to Dr. Afzal 75 percent of SAD sufferers are treated by their primary doctor who will decide the best way to alleviate your symptoms. If you feel you may be suffering from SAD, speak with your doctor. Don’t put your life on pause this winter.

Mood and Memory Associates
327 Main Street, Suite 2, Emmaus, 610.377.1228

Tilghman Medical Center
4825 West Tilghman Street, Allentown, 610.366.9242

Hartzell’s Pharmacy
300 American Street, Catasauqua, 610.264-5471

Low-intensity blue-enriched white light (750 lux) and standard bright light (10,000 lux) are equally effective in treating SAD. A randomized controlled study.

Seasonal affective disorder: an overview and update.

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