Recognizing and relieving symptoms of seasonal depression

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Here's what consumers can do to beat the ‘winter blues’

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that can occur in some individuals each year during fall and winter. When the sun is up less and it’s too cold to spend much time outside, sufferers may experience an unpleasant drop in their mood and energy level. 

Doctors believe SAD is directly linked to this limited exposure to sunlight, which can alter a person’s circadian rhythm. Changes to the circadian rhythm affect sleep-wake cycles – a critical basis for good energy and mood. 

In an interview with ConsumerAffairs, Dr. David Earnest, a circadian rhythms expert at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, explained that SAD is different from other types of clinical depression.

“SAD differs from depression in that symptoms usually are less severe and SAD is ‘seasonal’, with typical onset of most symptoms during the late Fall and Winter due to the changes in day length,” he said.

Treating the symptoms

Symptoms of SAD include lethargy, low energy, sluggishness, feeling down or depressed, sleep problems (usually excessive sleep), loss of interest in social activities, and changes in appetite, Earnest said.

Here are a few expert-recommended activities consumers can try to ease the symptoms of winter depression:

  • Light therapy. Studies show light therapy is an effective treatment for SAD. Commercially available light boxes help to lower melatonin levels in the bloodstream when the natural light of a winter or rainy day isn’t sufficient to do so.
  • Allow more light indoors. For people struggling with SAD, doctors recommend keeping blinds open and sitting close to windows when possible. Bright, open-spaced environments are better when it comes to combating the symptoms of SAD. 
  • Get outside. Individuals in northern regions should try to get some exercise and outdoor exposure to natural sunlight during the morning and late afternoon, says Earnest.
  • Take daily walks. Exercise and spending more time outdoors can help keep depressive symptoms at bay, and daily walks are one way to accomplish both. Aerobic exercise (such as biking, running, or swimming) has also be found to help manage symptoms of SAD. Aim to exercise at least three times per week for at least 60 minutes.
  • Maintain a healthy diet. Try to limit starches and sugars and avoid eating heavy meals or drinking fluids right before bed. 
  • Practice good sleep hygiene. Creating a regular light-dark cycle is a key part of combating seasonal affective disorder. Set a time to routinely go to bed each night and minimize light exposure (including blue light emitted from devices) during the two hours prior to that time. 
  • Supplements. Several over-the-counter natural products–including Hyperium extract (better known as St. John’s Wort), melatonin, and Vitamin D–have been found to be effective at treating the effects of SAD. Talk to your doctor before taking any new supplement.

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