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Wednesday, March 8, 2017 issue

Could SAD be the culprit for winter doldrums?

01/04/2008 - It's a sentiment that's often echoed once the winter weather hits and the clocks have been turned back for daylight savings time: with shorter days and less sunlight, life is not nearly as enjoyable. While this might be just a way of venting about the winter cold for some, for others it could be a sign of something else.

Though most people lament the loss of sun once winter arrives, for others this time represents a significant change in mood. That could be the result of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that's tied to a particular season such as winter, when the days are shorter and the amount of daylight is drastically reduced. Because of the already heightened stress of winter thanks to the holiday season, it's important to know the signs and potential causes of SAD to ensure you or a loved one gets the help needed.

Who gets SAD?

While anyone can get SAD, it has proven more common in certain groups of people than others. Those who have proven especially susceptible to SAD include: women, people who have a close relative who has SAD, and those who live in areas where winter days are especially short, or in regions where daylight is reduced significantly in winter compared to other seasons.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

It can be common to mistake the symptoms of SAD with simply feeling bad around the holidays because of the loss of a loved one. However, while SAD can certainly take hold around the holidays, unlike feelings of sadness rooted in the holiday season, SAD does not go away after the holiday season has passed. Instead, SAD can last through the duration of the winter season, which, in some regions, can be well into mid-April.

In fact, many people with SAD begin experiencing symptoms in fall (September or October) and those symptoms don't dissipate until April or May, when the weather typically changes dramatically. Symptoms to keep an eye out for include but are not limited to:

• Weight gain

• Excessive time spent sleeping or increased feelings of drowsiness

• Loss of interest in usual activities and separation from friends or family

• Moodiness characterized by feelings of sadness and grumpiness and increased feelings of anxiety

• Dietary differences, such as craving carbohydrates like bread and pasta

How do you know the difference between SAD and depression?

Depression and SAD can be very difficult to differentiate. The best way to tell the difference is to go to a doctor and be honest and ready to answer questions as to whether or not these feelings are now a pattern or if they just began. In general, the older a person gets, the less likely they are to get SAD for the first time. However, there is not cutoff age for SAD and anyone can get it.

Before going to the doctor, ask yourself if these feelings have become an annual thing that settles in at the onset of a particular season. A doctor will certainly ask these questions, but it's good to think about it beforehand as well to get the most accurate diagnosis. If the feelings do seem to arise around the same time every year, and the aforementioned symptoms occur as well, you could have SAD instead of depression.

How is SAD treated?

While there is no one cure for SAD, light therapy has proven an effective and rather quick means of treatment for many people suffering from the condition. This therapy has two different approaches.

• Dawn simulation: In dawn simulation therapy, a dim light goes on while a person is sleeping, and that light gradually gets brighter over time. Meant to simulate a sunrise, dawn simulation requires continued use throughout the season, even after the person starts to feel better.

• Bright light: Bright light treatment is a more direct approach to including more light in a person's daily routine, simply requiring them to sit in front of a bright light (referred to as a "light box") for no less than 30 minutes per day (typically in the morning).

While these treatments might be met with skepticism at first, since SAD is often linked to a lack of light, it's no surprise both treatments have proven effective.

Other treatments can include medication (antidepressants) and even counseling. In addition, some therapists suggest simply getting outside for a period of time when it's light out each day. Obviously, this can be difficult for adults with full-time jobs, but consider taking a walk during a lunch hour.

To learn more about SAD, visit the Season Affective Disorder Association Web site at

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