Winter got you down? |

Winter got you down?

Barbara Leffler, Ph.D, RN
Special to The Aspen Times

Aspen, CO Colorado

Although the changing seasons may be a source of inspiration for many people, others feel weighted down as winter approaches, the weather shifts and daylight hours decrease.

An estimated 10 million Americans are thought to be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD. Another 20 million adults – about 14 percent of the adult population – are estimated to suffer from a lesser form of SAD known as “winter blues.”

Like the bears, squirrels and birds, human beings have evolved under the sun. The workings of our bodies have been shaped by the seasons of the year. Although we have developed mechanisms to deal with regular changes brought on by the seasons, sometimes these mechanisms break down.

In recent years, science and medical practice have come to accept the importance of the seasons as well as the medical and psychological benefits of natural light.

For people who suffer from SAD, there is a greater sensitivity to the changing seasons, especially the lack of light in the winter. The seasonal symptoms, as well as the timing of the appearance of symptoms, may vary from person to person, but the worst months are January and February.

The symptoms of SAD are persistent and tend to come and go year after year at about the same time. Usually symptoms appear sometime in the fall and remit in the spring, although other seasonal patterns can occur.

Light deprivation is the most important environmental factor to consider when someone with SAD becomes depressed. This can occur with changing seasons, moving to a different climate, moving from a brighter to a darker home or workplace, and certain weather patterns. Stressful life events can also contribute to the development of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

SAD in children has many similarities to the adult form except that children tend to have more irritability.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a serious condition that can actually rob a person of life. It is diagnosed when a pattern of symptoms and remissions are present for at least two consecutive years and when these symptoms can be distinguished from other mood disorders.

Since some people with SAD only experience physical changes and many physical problems can cause lethargy and depression, first rule out physical illness with a qualified health professional before beginning treatment for SAD.

Treatment for SAD consists of decreasing stress, eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and using supplemental light. The basic principle involved in light therapy is to replace the light that is missing, helping the person return to the cheerful, energetic state he or she feels during the summer.

The best-studied, most-effective and practical way of enhancing environmental light is by sitting in front of a special light box for a given time each day. Treatment for SAD should be under the guidance of a qualified, licensed health professional as there may be medical contraindications for light therapy as well as medical side effects.

Winter blues, a milder form of SAD, is characterized by low energy, difficulty concentrating, difficulty completing work and tiredness. It also interferes with one’s quality of life and productivity. Consistent exposure to sunlight, exercise, a healthy diet, reducing stress and light therapy can relieve symptoms of both SAD and winter blues.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder include decreased energy, decreased productivity and creativity, increased need for sleep, feeling down or depressed or irritable, less control over appetite, reduced sex drive, avoidance of social situations. For more information contact a licensed mental health professional or Colorado West Mental Health Center at 970-668-3478.