In the last 35 years a term has emerged to describe a condition long known, particularly to people living in northern climates – Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD was first described in 1985 and is generally recognized as a syndrome although it has yet to find its way into the official diagnostic codes. It is a seasonal condition which is characterized by depression, increased sleep, overeating and carbohydrate cravings. While it can occur in the summer light, it is vastly more prevalent in the dark days of winter. A Norwegian study found that as many at 9.7% of the population of this northern country suffered from some identifiable elements of SAD. A study conducted evaluated the relative prevalence of SAD at different latitudes from New Hampshire to Florida. It found that the more northern areas had the highest incidence of SAD. It also noted that age plays a factor in that higher correlations were found among people over age 35. SAD can range from mild to severe. In fact, one report noted that “most patients do experience marked impairment of functioning at work and in their social relations.”
Recent research has shone a light on the subject – literally. While the exact process by which light affects mood and behavior is not known, what is clear is that the symptoms respond to light therapy for most people with mild symptoms. As an article noted: “Light therapy is the treatment of choice for patients with winter SAD. Treatment with bright light in the morning results in remission in two-thirds of patients with mild episodes, but in less than half of those with moderate to severe episodes.” There are many sources for lights that offer the full spectrum light for indoor use. More outdoor time on sunny days can supplement the use of full spectrum artificial light. For many people this simple adjustment will be sufficient to ensure proper sleep, fewer food cravings and the ability to resist the call of the donuts, cakes, and cookies.
For people for whom a bit of full spectrum light or more time outdoors doesn’t result in improvement, there has been extensive experimentation with a variety of medications. Since the primary symptom presenting problems in SAD is depression, early studies focused on the use of antidepressants, particularly those in the newer classes of drugs. Other studies looked at more natural substances. One study examined the use of vitamin B12 on reduction of oversleeping and found a positive effect. Other studies focused on the use of melatonin for relief of symptoms. Researchers at Oregon Health Science University found that it reduced the symptoms of SAD with none of the side effects associated with antidepressant medications. Other dietary supplements have been put forth as effective treatments for SAD.
If the shorter days and longer nights have you grumpy, anxious, hungry, craving carbs, at odds with friends and colleagues – there are a range of options open to you to make the best of this time of year. Increase the amount of natural light in your day whether it’s full spectrum light indoors, or more time in as much sunshine as there is. If that still leaves you less than your usual cheerful self, consider the range of natural supplements such as B12, melatonin or others, and if that is insufficient a visit to your physician to consider antidepressant medication may brighten your path to springtime and sunny days!