The Herald Bulletin

Evening Update


December 17, 2012

Seasonal affective disorder

It's a SAD time of year: When winter blues become seasonal depression

ANDERSON, Ind. — This time of year, it’s tough not to feel a little blue.

“Though it (the blues) is often only minor and no more than a nuisance,” said Andrew Skinner, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist and medical director of The Anderson Center at Saint John’s.

And, for some people, it can be treated with a little dose of family time and a few CCs of hot cocoa.

But there’s a line between a case of the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder, or SAD — the technical term for seasonal depression, Skinner said.

“When a person’s functioning is impaired by depressive symptoms that follow this seasonal pattern, we diagnose seasonal affective disorder,” he said.

Symptoms are about the same as for other types of depression, he said, including sadness, change in appetite, weight gain or loss, fatigue, reduced energy and irritability.

The disorder affects about 5 percent of Americans, who experience symptoms for about 40 percent of the year, says the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Some people are more prone to seasonal depression than others, Skinner said. But it’s usually brought on by shorter days and less natural sunlight in fall and winter.

In Madison County and much of the Midwest, it’s most noticeable just after the fall daylight saving time shift.

“For many people, this change means an overnight drop of an entire hour of daylight exposure,” Skinner said.  

There’s a lot of complicated science behind why this causes depression.

But, put simply, the sun helps your body control chemical production and know when to sleep, says the Mayo Clinic. A disruption in the body’s sleep cycle or hormones like melatonin and serotonin — which affect mood and help regulate sleep — can lead to depression.

As might be expected, light therapy is a go-to treatment for SAD.

Treatments exposing patients to specific intensities and wavelengths of light “have been shown to be highly effective in clinical research,” Skinner said. “This usually involves sitting in front of one of these bright lights for 20 to 30 minutes each morning, and you can read the paper or even watch television while you do it.”

There are other ways to ward off depression, Skinner said. A balanced diet, daily exercise and a consistent sleep regimen can help, but aren’t fool-proof.

“If symptoms are severe, particularly if a person is experiencing persistent hopelessness or suicidal thinking, they should not hesitate to seek professional help,” Skinner said.

In that case, he said, “Antidepressant medication can be very helpful, but a type of talk therapy called cognitive therapy is at least as effective as medication and has more lasting benefits.”

Find Baylee Pulliam on Facebook and @BayleeNPulliam on Twitter, or call 648-4250.

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