Ask the Community Pharmacy & Seniors Wellness Expert – Tammi Hanowski, BSP, Pharmacist
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines sad as “affected with or expressive of grief or unhappiness”. Everyone will experience some form of sadness throughout their lifetime but what happens when we start to feel sad for days on end for no tangible reason? Do you catch yourself thinking “but I only feel sad for a few months of the year so I can’t be depressed”
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a real type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody.
The symptoms specific to winter depression may include:
- Tiredness or low energy
- Problems getting along with other people
- Hypersensitivity to rejection
- Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
Although the specific cause of seasonal affective disorder remains unknown, some factors may play a role in winter onset SAD including:
- A reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
- A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
- The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
Treatments used to help with symptoms of SAD include the use of antidepressant medications, psychotherapy and light therapy. Light therapy is one of the first line treatments for fall-onset SAD. In light therapy, you sit a few feet from a special light therapy box so that you’re exposed to bright light. Light therapy mimics natural outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. It generally starts working in a few days to two weeks and causes few side effects. Research on light therapy is limited, but it appears to be effective for most people in relieving SAD symptoms.
Lifestyle changes may also help with SAD symptoms. Make your environment sunnier and brighter–sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office. Get outside. Take a long walk, eat lunch at a nearby park, or simply sit on a bench and soak up the sun. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help — especially if you spend some time outside within two hours of getting up in the morning.
Exercise regularly. Exercise and other types of physical activity help relieve stress and anxiety, both of which can increase SAD symptoms. Being more fit can make you feel better about yourself, too, which can lift your mood.
If you feel like you may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder, see your doctor to get a proper diagnosis. Some people find it helpful to begin treatment before symptoms would normally start in the fall or winter, and then continue treatment past the time symptoms would normally go away. Other people need continuous treatment to prevent symptoms from returning.
So don’t brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the “winter blues” or a seasonal funk that you have to tough out on your own. 2-6% of Canadians will experience SAD in their lifetime and women are 8 times more likely than men to experience this type of depression. You are not alone.