Mary Garza Cummings

With the holiday season upon on, it is not uncommon for some of us to experience the winter blues. But staying indoors more and the shorter days providing less sunlight may be contributing to more than just a temporary depressive mood.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Seasonal affective disorder (also called SAD) is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year. If you're like most people with seasonal affective disorder, your symptoms start in the fall and may continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, seasonal affective disorder causes depression in the spring or early summer.”

According to the Mental Health Disorders Association, approximately 10% to 20% of Americans suffer from the milder form of fall/winter SAD, while almost 5% suffer from a more severe form.

Although the onset of seasonal affective disorder is typically during the fall or winter, it is misunderstood by some who feel depressed. For those who recognize it as a disorder, treatment can make a positive impact to reducing the symptoms. Treatment can include medications and light therapy, also called phototherapy.

The fall/winter SAD symptoms start when the days become shorter with less sunlight. It is not as prevalent, but some are affected during the spring and summer. The symptoms can vary from mild to severe.

The Mayo Clinic states the symptoms of the fall/winter SAD can be one or a combination of the following: depression, hopelessness, anxiety, lethargy, oversleeping, appetite suppression, oversleeping, inordinate weight gain, social withdrawal and difficulty in focusing or concentrating. The spring/summer SAD symptoms include anxiety, irritability, agitation, weight loss, poor appetite, insomnia, and increased sex drive.

There is not enough known about the specific cause of SAD. “It’s likely, as with many mental health conditions, that genetics, age and, perhaps most importantly, your body's natural chemical makeup all play a role in developing the condition.”

The Mayo Clinic lists the following specific factors:

Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt your body's internal clock, which lets you know when you should sleep or be awake. This disruption of your circadian rhythm may lead to feelings of depression.

Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the natural hormone melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood. Talk to your doctor to see whether taking melatonin supplements is a good option.

Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in seasonal affective disorder. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, perhaps leading to depression.

Treatment can include more than an antidepressant which helps boost levels of serotonin in the brain. For example, research has shown that taking supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids, extra vitamin D and B complex, and a comprehensive multivitamin and mineral supplement can help.

Weight gain can be problematic. Those affected by SAD often experience an increased desire for comfort foods especially starches such as cookies and pastries. Eating lower glycemic foods such as whole grain breads, seeds, fruits, and vegetables can help offset cravings.

Additionally, exercise is always a healthy antidepressant and even more important when suffering from the blues. In fact, studies have shown that for some individuals, exercise can be just as effective as antidepressants. Exercising outdoors in the sunlight is best.

Light therapy can also improve symptoms. There are lamps that simulate sunlight to help replace decreased exposure to natural sunlight. Also, letting in as much sunlight into your home and more time spent in the brightest lit areas in your home can lift mood. If you don’t have enough natural lighting in your home, utilize lamps and overhead lights to brighten dimly lit rooms. Aroma therapy can also help mood. Try scents such as cinnamon, ginger, and peppermint.

If symptoms don't improve, the Mayo Clinic recommends individuals experiencing SAD seek treatment from their doctor. Without treatment, symptoms can lead to “suicidal thoughts and behavior, social withdrawal, school and work problems and substance abuse”. Please share this information with others that may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder.

Mary Garza Cummings is a free-lance writer. The Town Crier does not warrant the information as valid. It is the responsibility of the reader to ensure validity of the information. If you have comments email HYPERLINK "mailto:askseniorfocus@aol.com