Ask The Doc - Seasonal Depression

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Question: Is Seasonal Affective Disorder real? And what can I do about it?

By Ivaylo Hristov, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Columbia St. Mary’s

It’s the time of the year when seasonal depression can find its way into one’s soul. As the days get shorter, people often start feeling depressed. Suddenly, people become unhappy, they’re in a bad mood all the time and they have no desire to be social. They lack energy and their ability to enjoy life has vanished.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is very real. In the United States, upwards of 10 million people suffer from SAD every year. It’s more prevalent in women than men (though men often experience more severe symptoms) and is more common the farther north one lives.

Symptoms of SAD include:

• Sadness and feeling of emptiness.
• Sleep disturbances – difficulty falling and staying asleep, waking up too early or having trouble waking up in the morning.
• Loss of energy, apathy, tiredness, feeling sleepy all the time.
• Irregular appetite – loss of appetite or overeating and weight gain.
• Loss of interests in typical activities and such that used to be priorities, including intimacy.
• Memory or intellectual problems, difficulty thinking clearly, concentrating, staying focused, making decisions.         
• Excessive fears, anxiety, tenseness, irritability and panic attacks.
• Lack of confidence.
• Lack of desire to socialize.
• Physical discomfort, headaches, stomachaches, back pain and/or chest pain.
• Thoughts of hurting yourself or suicidal ideations that last more than two weeks.

If you are experiencing any combination of the above symptoms, seek psychiatric or psychological help immediately. Many people suffering from SAD don’t seek professional help, which only exacerbates the problem and can potentially lead to chronic depression. It’s important to acknowledge the problem and to not give up. Sharing and not bottling these feelings up is a crucial part of the therapy process. According to the World Health Organization, depression is the fourth most prevalent health problem in the world.

Initially, SAD was thought to be caused by insufficient exposure to sunlight. More recently, it was discovered to be a discrepancy between our bodies’ internal clock (the circadian rhythms) and the time of sunrise and sunset. Because some people wake up before dawn during the winter, their bodies aren’t exposed to sunlight at the proper time to correctly calibrate their circadian rhythms. Other people have the opposite problem: they stay up after dark, so they begin producing melatonin too early, long before they actually go to sleep.

Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythms, which in turn controls sleeping pattern, hormone release and body temperature. Melatonin also functions as a sleep hormone. It’s produced in the brain when it’s dark outside – in the early stages of sleep – and can help with insomnia, delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS) and jet lag. Deficiencies in melatonin can cause sleeplessness and fatigue.

So, what can you do to combat SAD? The best bet is to make sure your immune system is operating to its fullest capacity. You can achieve this by:

Eating well – Avoid refined sugars, too much alcohol and caffeine. Limit coffee to one cup per day.

Exercising regularly – 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, five to seven days per week, can naturally boost serotonin levels. Serotonin is the body’s “feel good” hormone and higher level of serotonin can contribute to feelings of happiness and success. Low serotonin levels are linked to weakened immune system and depression.

Getting sufficient sleep – Regulate your circadian rhythms by going to bed early and shutting off all lights and as many electronics as possible. Try to go to bed around 10 p.m. and get at least eight hours of sleep.

Getting proper sunlight exposure – Sunlight is important to activate production of serotonin. Open your blinds and get outside during the day as much as possible. There are also specially designed light-therapy boxes you can purchase that mimic natural light. Sitting in front of one for regular periods of time has shown to reduce the symptoms of SAD.

Managing stress – Meditation can be an effective way to reduce stress and boost your immune system. Regular exercise is another excellent stress reducer.

Being social – When people are social (either intimately or platonically), serotonin and endorphin levels elevate naturally. Note of caution: antidepressants can suppress sex drive. It’s important to work with your doctor and psychotherapist to find the right balance and learn more ways of managing your seasonal depression.

Ivaylo Hristov is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at Columbia St. Mary’s. For more information, please call 262-789-1191.

This article appeared in the December 11 issue of The Ozaukee News Graphic.



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