Monday Medical: A look at seasonal affective disorder

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We live in Ski Town USA, where we have winter for a considerable time of the year. Typically, Colorado mountain winters are filled with "bluebird" days full of sunshine.

However, as we all know very well, these winters also bring gray, cloudy, snowy days. Many people may develop "cabin fever" or seasonal affective disorder, known as SAD, during the winter months.

When seasons change, our bodies naturally go through some changes in response to an increase or decrease in outside light and temperatures. For instance, during the colder winter months, people may find themselves sleeping or eating more as temperatures drop, days shorten and nights lengthen.

There is a shift in our biological internal clock or circadian rhythm that can cause people to feel out of sync with their daily schedule.

SAD is a seasonal condition, which means that signs and symptoms go away and then return at the same times every year. Typically, the symptoms of SAD disappear with the arrival of spring and summer as temperatures get warmer and daylight hours increase. There are, however, some people who experience the opposite pattern, where they develop SAD at the start of spring or summer.

During fall and winter months, some people experience symptoms of depression that can appear gradually or all at once. Although the depression usually is mild, it can become severe.

The typical characteristics of SAD include depression, anxiety, a feeling of hopelessness, loss of energy, oversleeping, social withdrawal, lack of interest in normal activities, weight gain and appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates.

Note that if you suffer from SAD, you do not necessarily experience all of these symptoms. The symptoms of depression are primary.

If you think that you are suffering from SAD, please don't brush this off as a simple case of the "winter blues" and try to tough it out on your own. Seek the help of a trained medical professional.

Proper evaluation is necessary, as SAD can be misdiagnosed as hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, infectious mononucleosis and other viral infections. A trained clinician can diagnose the symptoms and suggest therapy options. SAD can be managed with the right course of treatment.

Increased exposure to sunlight has been shown to improve the symptoms of SAD. Researchers have proven that bright light from special fluorescent blubs with color temperatures between 3000 and 6500 degrees Kelvin have been shown to be effective in changing the chemistry of the brain. This, in turn, lessens the typical symptoms of SAD.

Relief also can be found with psychotherapy sessions and prescribed antidepressants. Here are some suggestions that may help you manage SAD:

- Make your home and work environment sunnier and brighter. Open blinds, add skylights, trim tree branches that block sunlight and consider trying a light box.

- Get outdoors on sunny days, even during the winter.

- Exercise regularly. This helps relieve stress and anxiety. Being more fit can make you feel better about yourself and lift your mood.

- Take good care of yourself. Get plenty of sleep, eat a balanced diet and take time to relax.

- Avoid alcohol and non-prescribed medications.

- If taking prescription medicine, take medications as directed.

Learn how to manage your stress; know your body's stress signals.

- Stay in contact with people who are positive and whom you enjoy being around.

- If possible, take a trip to a sunny, warm location if you have winter SAD or to a cooler location if you have summer SAD.

Lisa A. Bankard coordinates Yampa Valley Medical Center's Wellness and Community Education programs. She can be reached at lisa.bankard@yvmc.org.

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