The official beginning of winter that arrived on Sunday, Dec. 21, marked the darkest day of the year. Around this time, some of us feel a familiar pall as the gloom outside seems to creep into our psyches.
Symptoms of depression that occur during the late fall and winter are known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. People who live in places with long winter nights are at particularly high risk for this malady. But there are ways to combat the suffering.
Bright Light Therapy
Therapy with a special high-intensity lamp has been proven to make a difference in brain chemistry, though scientists don’t know exactly why that happens, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
“There’s been plenty of research to back that up,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
For bright light therapy to work, you will need between 30 and 90 minutes of exposure to it each day, according to the APA. Your doctor can give you instructions. One method is to sit about two feet from the light with your eyes open, but without looking directly at the lamp. Early mornings, when the therapy can simulate sunrise, may be best.
A Minneapolis man said he takes his light therapy lamp out of the basement each year in early- to mid-October.
“I know it’s coming, that dark period,” said Lee, 60, who asked to be identified only by his first name to avoid the stigma associated with depression. He uses the lamp for about a half-hour each morning, while reading the paper and eating breakfast.
“If I don’t use it for two, three, four days, I begin to notice it,” Lee said. “My spouse notices a big difference in terms of energy level and concentration and mood.”
Light therapy should not be used if you are taking antibiotics or certain drugs for psoriasis or psychosis, however.
Winter is not the time to skimp on your vitamins, especially Vitamin D. A Vitamin D deficiency is likely to be a contributing factor in seasonal depression, according to research by the University of Georgia, the University of Pittsburgh and the Queensland University of Technology in Australia.
“We believe there are several reasons for this, including that Vitamin D levels fluctuate in the body seasonally, in direct relation to seasonally available sunlight,” said Alan Stewart of the University of Georgia College of Education.
The researchers said there is also evidence that Vitamin D is involved in the synthesis of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, chemicals whose imbalance is linked to depression.
The three universities published their research in the November 2014 issue of the journal, Medical Hypotheses.
Other Ways to Cope
Abderholden sees individuals in her work who clearly struggle with SAD. “I know people who have anxiety and depression that is pretty much controlled by medication, but they’re still impacted by the dark days,” she said.Meditation and mindfulness training, a sort of “mini” cognitive behavior therapy, can help, Abderholden noted.
Experts also recommend the following:
- Get enough sleep
- Eat healthy foods
- Limit alcohol (which is a depressant)
- Exercise, especially when you least feel like it
- Take antidepressants if needed
Do You Have SAD?
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include:
- Fatigue or low energy
- Lack of interest in everyday activities
- Craving carbohydrate-rich foods
- Social withdrawal
- Weight gain
Talk to a doctor about your symptoms; you may think you have SAD when it is actually a thyroid problem, low blood sugar, mononucleosis or another type of virus. And if you are severely depressed or suicidal, go to a hospital emergency room or call 911.