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more articles by Gerson, Henry D. , MD  |  author's bio

Winter Blues Might be SAD Special to the Journal By Henry Gerson, MD As residents of America’s north, we can expect to exper

Winter Blues Might be SAD

By Henry Gerson, MD

As residents of America’s north, we can expect to experience some “winter blues.” Each year, an estimated 25 percent of the population living in the higher latitudes of the United States will suffer some form of seasonal depression. These individuals generally cope with it well and recuperate completely in spring. But some suffer with worse symptoms in a pattern that we have come to know as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

SAD is a form of depression that arises when the hours of daylight fall. It manifests in fall and winter, with peak incidence in January and February; and it dissipates with spring and its longer days.

 

What are the symptoms of SAD?

Sadness, low energy, loss of interest in activities you typically enjoy, social isolation, cravings for food that is high in carbohydrates, and weight gain.  Symptoms generally rate as bothersome but in some cases they can become severe and can interfere with day-to-day activities.

What causes SAD?

The theoretic cause of SAD is reduced exposure to sunlight. Lower light exposure affects the neurological processes linked to our circadian rhythm, which regulates the body’s internal clock. This affects the body’s production of melatonin, the sleep hormone, which increases during dark periods. People working in offices without windows are at somewhat greater risk and Ithaca’s cloudy weather may certainly be a contributing factor here.

What if I have the “winter blues?”

If you are mildly blue this time of year but are basically functioning okay, you may have a mild (sub-clinical) form of SAD. There are steps you can take that may help you feel better. If feasible, spend increased time outside in the sun and use your home or office space in such way to maximize your direct exposure to the sun though windows. Moderate aerobic exercise and complex movement activities, such as yoga, dance, or tai chi are general tonics for mood maintenance.

What if I feel significantly sad?

If you are bothered by symptoms of SAD, you merit evaluation by your doctor or a mental health professional. A good evaluation is important because similar symptoms could be caused by other medical problems that include (among other less common causes) hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, infections, bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder. A proper diagnosis is the first step to successful treatment and relief.

One tragic consequence of serious cases of seasonal affective disorder and other forms of depression can be suicide. Any individual experiencing suicidal thoughts merits immediate attention from a health care professional or evaluation in the nearest hospital or clinic Emergency Room.

How is SAD treated?

A skilled clinician can diagnose and effectively treat SAD. Light therapy with a specialized light box for 30 to 90 minutes a day has been proven effective. Psychotherapy and antidepressant medications can provide additional relief. With the proper help, SAD can be manageable.

Dr. Gerson is a board certified psychiatrist and member of the medical staff at Cayuga Medical Center at Ithaca. He also develops community and corporate stress management and mental wellness programming through the Cayuga Center for Healthy Living (CCHL), located at the Island Health Center. To  find out more about programs at CCHL call 607-252-3590.

 

 

 

 

 

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