Winter weather can make many ‘SAD’
Jan. 21, 2016
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - When the snow falls, many people can hardly wait to hit the slopes, jump on a snowmobile or fashion a snowman in the front yard.
But for others, the arrival of winter weather can bring about anxiety, lethargy and hopelessness brought about by Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD is a subtype of major depression that's related to changes in seasons, beginning and ending at roughly the same times each year.
In most cases, SAD symptoms appear during late fall or early winter and go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. However, some people exhibit the opposite pattern, with the disorder presenting itself in spring or summer. In either case, symptoms may start out mild, but become more severe as the season progresses.
"For a long time people thought (SAD) was either made up or simply dismissed it as nothing," said Kristina Benkeser, SRU's director of student health services. "It is real and it is a major form of depression. Without a doubt, it is most certainly something."
Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression or winter blues, may include: irritability; tiredness or low energy; problems getting along with other people; hypersensitivity to rejection; heavy, "leaden" feeling in the arms or legs; oversleeping; appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates; and weight gain.
"Young people, those in the 18 to 30 years of age range, have a higher risk of suffering from SAD," said Benkeser. "When you consider that low energy can decrease one's ability to concentrate, which can then effect study ability, it is important that anyone who believes they may be suffering from SAD seek attention immediately. Completing coursework can be very challenging if you're battling such a (disorder)."
While specifics related to a cause of SAD are still unknown, factors that have come to light include a person's circadian rhythm, or biological clock, in addition to a reduction in serotonin and melatonin levels. Serotonin is a brain chemical that affects mood, while melatonin plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
"From an evolutionary standpoint," continued Benkeser, "the human body was designed to move, not to live in a building filled with artificial light from fluorescent tubes.
"Our bodies are designed to be outside and to move...a lot. When you handcuff it with cold, dreary weather and no sunshine, that gloom, for many, brings the potential for mental health problems."
As with other types of depression, SAD, when left untreated, can get worse and lead to other problems including suicidal thoughts or behavior; social withdrawal; school or work problems; and substance abuse according to the Mayo Clinic.
Treatment can help prevent complications, especially if SAD is diagnosed before symptoms worsen.
Benkeser said that there are three forms of treatment for SAD including medication, psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, and light therapy.
"The easiest (treatment), by far, is sunshine," continued Benkeser. "It's free and there is no prescription required. The problem in this region is that we don't have a lot of that in the winter, which can then trigger SAD for some, so we have to seek alternatives."
One of those alternatives is a light therapy box. With this device, a person sits a few feet from the box and is exposed to bright light that mimics natural, outdoor light, which then raises serotonin and melatonin levels.
Benkeser is quick to point out that people shouldn't confuse a light therapy box with a tanning booth.
"Going to a tanning booth will not solve your (SAD) problem," said Benkeser, "but it will create another one.
"Not only will you be depressed, you'll need treatment for skin cancer."
For those that receive treatment via medication, Benkeser warns that prescription drugs can have adverse reactions when combined with herbal treatments.
"Herbal treatments are medicines and can have drug interactions that interfere with prescription drugs," said Benkeser. "Always let your healthcare provider know if you're taking anything beyond what they are prescribing for you.
"Just because it's natural doesn't mean it's safe or that it isn't harmless. There are plenty of things in nature that can kill you."
In addition to any treatment plan prescribed by a healthcare provider, Benkeser recommends making your home or office sunnier, weather permitting, by opening blinds and draperies; taking a walk outside, again, weather permitting, during your lunch break; and exercising regularly to help relieve stress.
"Exercise doesn't have to be anything regimented," said Benkeser. "Even a simple walk is good. When you walk, your body releases dopamine, which helps to regulate chemical balance.
"A daily walk can be just as effective as an antidepressant in both managing and helping to treat depression," said Benkeser.
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