Posted on: 08.10.2022 Posted by: Drlark Comments: 0

February 19, 2004



Why so SAD?

Do you feel blue when the

days get shorter? During the winter, do you experience a greater

need for sleep or notice an increase in your appetite? Do these

symptoms lessen in the spring only to reappear in winter? If you

answered yes to any of these questions, you may be one of the millions

of people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

The key to knowing whether these symptoms can be

attributed to SAD or another cause of depression is whether your

symptoms appear during the winter and disappear in the spring. Of

course these are generalities, so I recommend you seek the advice

of a health care professional if your symptoms persist or are debilitating.

The most common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are:

  • Depression
  • Reduced mental clarity
  • Tiredness that is not remedied even after sleeping

  • Desire to stay in bed or withdraw socially
  • Lowered sex drive
  • Increased PMS symptoms
  • Weight gain

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The short, dark days of winter limit your exposure

to the natural outdoor light from the sun that regulates your biorhythms

of waking and sleeping. In recent years, studies have confirmed

that sunlight enhances the function of the adrenal glands, which

helps your body deal with stress. It also plays an important role

in bone health, because it stimulates the body’s production of vitamin

D. It is not surprising that women who are sensitive to the seasonal

change of light report symptoms of mild depression.

Studies indicate that several of the brain’s neurotransmitters,

including melatonin, serotonin and dopamine, are lower in women

experiencing SAD. But, the real culprit seems to be the amount of

light coming through your eyes! This makes sense because light receptor

cells in the retina transmit information to cells in the hypothalamus,

the “master gland” of the brain. The hypothalamus sends

out messages that help to regulate mood, appetite and menstrual

cycles, and even some that affect the quality of your sleep. For

example, when you are light-deprived, the hypothalamus relays messages

to the pineal gland to release more melatonin, which can make you

feel more sleepy.

A little bit of light makes a big difference

I have found that adequate exposure to the right

kind of light may be all you need to improve your symptoms. All

that is required is an extra hour of sunlight per day. Some of my

patients have even experienced relief after replacing standard light

bulbs with those that approximate sunlight. These little beacons

can be found in most home center stores.

If you don’t have the luxury of being able to spend

an hour in the sun every day, there is another great way to get

the light you need. In 1984, Norman Rosenthal, a psychiatrist at

National Institute of Mental Health, published a paper on the use

of bright light therapy in patients with this disorder. Bright light

therapy uses specially designed light boxes that are equipped with

fluorescent bulbs, a metal reflector, and a protective plastic screen.

(They look like a miniature version of the devices that illuminate

stadiums during night games.)

The typical light box provides 10,000 lux of bright

indoor lighting, which is still only one tenth of the intensity

of sunshine. In most instances, a box is positioned one to three

feet away from the user, who is free to read, work or exercise.

Generally, I’ve found that 30 minutes of exposure each day, preferably

in the morning, is all that you need to improve your mood and reduce

SAD symptoms.

Another light device, the dawn simulator, has also

been found to be effective in treating SAD. The simulator gradually

increases morning light exposure by turning on an indoor light before

sunrise, in essence making the sun come up earlier in the day.

Do not confuse light boxes with tanning lamps.

The critical factor in causing and relieving SAD is the amount of

light your eyes receive. Tanning lamps expose the skin, not the

eyes, to light. Plus, tanning lamps are designed to deliver large

doses of skin-damaging UV rays, whereas the lights used to treat

SAD downplay this harmful portion of the light spectrum. Side effects

from light therapy are rare, and most often include jitteriness,

a feeling of eyestrain or headache.

Other ways to “lighten up”

Although SAD accounts for many cases of winter

depression, it isn’t the only cause. Other potential triggers may

be responsible, for example being “cooped up” and isolated,

getting more exposure than usual to indoor allergens that you may

be sensitive to, and facing emotional issues linked to the holidays.

If a few weeks of light therapy doesn’t alleviate

your depression, you should explore some stress reduction options,

such as exercise (especially outdoor exercise), yoga, or meditation.

St. John’s wort, an herbal remedy, has also been used to successfully

treat patients with SAD. A word of caution: St. John’s wort can

negatively interact with other antidepressants and melatonin. It

can also increase your sensitivity to the sun, so if you plan to

spend time in the sun while taking St. John’s wort, take extra care

to apply sunscreen and avoid being in the sun from 10:00 a.m. until

2:00 p.m. when the sun’s rays are strongest.

Read More on Depression:

Getting Started

Depletion Equals Depression

Quiz: Are You Depressed?

Quiz: How Balanced are Your Neurotransmitters?

Keep it SIMPLE tip — Secret Weapon Against


Nutritional Therapies

Neurotransmitters Are Derived From Nutrients

in Your Diet

Replenishing the Pathways

SAMe – the Natural Antidepressant

Related Information

Recommendations for Mood Health

Complementary Therapies

Depression Release Breathing Exercise

Yoga Pose for Depression Relief



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