The month of January, while a busy month for Extension with grower meetings and other engagements, is a bit of a letdown month for me after the euphoria of the holiday season. Others might experience a “down” feeling or feel blue. This might be something you experience every winter. Perhaps, like many Americans, a person may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, appropriately known as SAD.
According to multiple Extension sources around the nation, seasonal affective disorder or seasonal depression is a mood disorder that happens every year at the same time, usually in winter. Some people with SAD experience very mild symptoms and feel “out of sorts” or irritable. Others have debilitating symptoms that interfere with relationships and productivity.
Criteria to diagnose SAD include a regular relationship between the onset of depressive episodes and the time of year, with it being a repeating pattern for at least the past two years. The cause of the depression is not related to an obvious seasonal psychosocial stressor, such as being unemployed every winter. The feeling of depression also will disappear in the spring. Continuing on, no non-seasonal episodes of depression occur during the same time period.So, what causes SAD? Although the exact cause is unknown, researchers believe that changes in the amount of daily sunlight cause changes in the body’s internal biological clock, known as our circadian rhythm, and in turn, mood altering brain chemicals. Circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that affects our eating and sleeping patterns, brain wave activity, hormone production, and other biological activities. In susceptible people, less daily sunlight and the seasonal changes in circadian rhythm can bring on depression and negative thinking. Experts also believe that reduced sunlight during fall and winter leads to lower production levels of the “feel good” chemical serotonin in the brain. When you are “a quart low in serotonin,” you can feel tired, depressed, and crave carbohydrates.
Here are some ways to counteract the effects of SAD: First, get more sunlight. Ways to do this are enjoying the outdoors during sun hours and, when indoors, having a window near where one sits or works during the sunny part of the day. Eat healthy foods and exercise. Spend time doing enjoyable activities with positive and upbeat people. Prescribed light therapy may make a difference for some people in treating the symptoms of SAD. This involves exposure to a very bright light (usually fluorescent) for 30 minutes or more each day during the winter months. Some people may need mental health therapy and/or prescription anti-depressants during this time of the year. Avoid alcohol and illegal drugs, which can impair one’s judgment when making decisions and dealing with other people and could make SAD worse. Finally, please don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Being healthy physically, as well as mentally is vitally important to us all.