Shining the Light on the Winter Blues
If the holiday season doesn’t seem to bring much cheer to your winter days, you’re not alone. Cincinnati’s cold, cloudy and dark winters leave many feeling depressed, withdrawn and sluggish. If you think the problem is all in your head, you’re only partially right.
“Seasonal affective disorder , also known as SAD, is much more than a mood-based condition; it’s a medical problem,” says Jeremy Bruce, M.D. , a board-certified internal medicine physician with The Christ Hospital Physicians–Primary Care. “It’s how some people’s neuroendocrine system responds to excessive cold, cloudiness and lack of natural sunlight in the winter season. About 20 percent of the population experiences a mild form of SAD.”
Much more than mood
Simply living in the Midwest puts you at risk for SAD. Shorter days and longer hours of darkness in fall and winter create imbalances of serotonin and melatonin – the chemicals in the brain linked to our sleep-wake cycles, energy and mood. You might also be at higher risk for SAD if you’re female or have a family history of depression.
If you’re losing sleep, overeating, easily frustrated or abandoning activities you once enjoyed, it might be time to check in with your primary care physician. Your doctor will start by ruling out any other underlying conditions that could mimic seasonal affective disorder, including pre-diabetes, hypothyroidism or a vitamin or mineral deficiency (vitamin D or iron, for example).
Lighten up the mood
But before you pack your bags for a warm and sunny climate, or wait in sadness for spring to appear, consider these simple solutions to prevent and treat SAD:
- Light Therapy – Broad-spectrum (except UV) light therapy acts as an antidepressant for many people with SAD. Like pushing the reset button on your biological clock, light therapy helps the body sync its sleep/wake cycles and “normalize” the biochemicals melatonin and serotonin in our bodies.
When natural sunlight isn’t an option, special light therapy boxes with broad-spectrum bulbs can work wonders. The boxes range in intensity of light from 2,500 to 10,000 lux (the higher the lux, the more intense the light).
“The effects of light on the body are more than just psychological; it’s been shown to directly improve a sense of well-being,” Dr. Bruce says. “Using a full-spectrum light for at least 30 minutes daily while at your desk, sitting quietly or reading can help.”
- Medication – A very mild antidepressant can sometimes treat SAD symptoms such as sleep disturbances, feelings of indifference and sadness. “There are well-known medications that we can offer at very mild doses that do well at treating the disorder,” Dr. Bruce says.
- Exercise – Aside from the obvious health benefits, a consistent exercise program (not a day or two at the gym every few weeks) can release feel-good brain chemicals known as endorphins, which may ease depression.
“Any of these therapies require time and consistency,” Dr. Bruce says. “The earlier you recognize symptoms of SAD and get a diagnosis, the sooner you can start these treatments and get back to feeling better.”
Find out if your symptoms are related to SAD by making an appointment with a primary care physician. To find a physician near you, visit www.TheChristHospital.com  or call 877-904-4YOU.