Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Deborah Gray Health Guide
  • After numerous heat waves, the most recent one in the beginning of November, it looks like fall weather is finally coming to Northern California. Which is good, given that there's really no air conditioning anywhere, including my office. But there are a couple of downsides to this time of year. For one, as soon as the weather grows cool, my food choices tend to be less salad and sushi, and more grilled cheese sandwiches and hot chocolate with whipped cream. I swear that it's biological - Nature trying to trick me into gaining a layer of fat to keep me warm. On the plus side, when it's cold I tend to crave hot tea, which has very few calories, more than a frappuccino, which has many, many calories. But overall it's still a struggle between me and the changes that the winter brings, and I lose more often than not.

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    Also, the decreased amount of light I get can cause problems. As I've mentioned in the past, I have suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) for most of my life, in addition to unipolar depression. SAD is a type of depression that is seasonal, i.e., the individual is only affected in the fall, winter and early spring by the decrease in light. Some people have a late spring and summer form of SAD that manifests itself in hypomania due to the increase in light. For the purposes of this SharePost I am going to address the winter SAD, as it affects a greater number of people.


    Most people experience SAD to some degree during the short, dark days of the year. We tend to sleep more, have less energy and eat foods rich in carbohydrates. For some people, whether from brain chemistry or environment, have their life turned upside down every winter. If you think it's possible that you have SAD, your first step in diagnosis could be our quiz testing your knowledge of the disorder.


    Light therapy is considered to be the most effective treatment for SAD, although at this point the exact reason for its success has not been determined definitively. Light therapy is delivered through light boxes placed near to the patient's eyes, for varying amounts of time. I'll cover light therapy in greater detail in a future SharePost, as it is fairly complex.


    Anyway, let's say you're like me, and pretty much anyone else nowadays, and a couple hundred dollars for a light box just isn't in your budget (and the likelihood of your insurance paying for it is really small). Assuming that your SAD is mild to moderate, there are a few ways you can try to manage it yourself.


    1. Try an alarm clock that gradually increases its light to help you wake up. They can be found online from $50 on up, so they're more reasonable than a light box. Google "alarm clock light" and you'll see a range of products. (Note that this is different from, and cheaper than, a dawn simulator.)
    2. Take walks outside. This benefits you in two different ways to treat SAD. One is the exercise, which can help all forms of depression. The other is the increased amount of natural light.

  • 3. Re-arrange your home, if possible, to take advantage of natural light. Try to do whatever activities you spend the most time at (watching television, reading, working on the computer) near a window.

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    4. Try counseling. Cognitive therapy in particular can help you to modify your behavior and feelings.


    All of these suggestions should be undertaken under a doctor's care, and you should contact your doctor if your SAD worsens.


Published On: December 18, 2008