Fight SAD Before It Starts

Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is something that is talked about quite a bit around wintertime, but you will see why I think it is important to talk about it now. SAD is a type of depression that happens as a result of the light changes that occur with the onset of fall and winter. Those with the condition start to feel sad or moody, lose interest in regular activities, crave carbohydrates and have sleeping problems. Typically these symptoms resolve in the spring when the weather gets nice and the days get longer and lighter.

If this has happened to you two or more years in a row you may have SAD. There are a variety of treatments that may help. Antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy are often recommended. Light therapy is a more recent therapy that has been found to be quite effective in combination with these two, and it can often be used alone as well.

How does it work? Light therapy can simulate the sun and restore balance to our circadian or body rhythm. It is easy to use and can be extremely helpful. The key is to find the right kind of light and to use it at the correct time of day. The lights for SAD are available commercially and on the Internet. They are usually fluorescent or incandescent and emit little to no UV light.

Generally, you would want to turn the light on first thing in the morning and have it within 2 feet of you for about 30 minutes. There are light boxes specifically designed for SAD. Unfortunately the FDA does not regulate them so it is important to do your homework regarding their safety and effectiveness.

I never thought that I had SAD. However, I found a deal on a light box last year at Costco and decided to do an experiment on myself. Every morning starting in September and ending in May, I used it for 30 minutes. I would turn it on the minute I got up and kept it on while I did my daily email check-in. I noticed that I was happier last winter, with fewer mood swings and was able to keep to my healthy eating plan. My husband noticed that I was easier to live with (the real acid test!).

The key I have discovered with my patients (and myself) is to start with the light box in the fall before it starts getting really dark. I recently fired mine up again. You want to stay on top of this and it will help you to make a smooth mood transition to fall and winter.

I have a very good friend who is a therapist in Portland. He likens the treatment of SAD to that of physical pain—it is much easier to treat if you catch it early and stay in front of it. If you get behind it you are always chasing your tail.

If you think you have SAD you might want to check out light boxes and talk to your doctor. It can make for a much more pleasant winter season!

How do you keep up your mood when summer turns to fall? Let us know in the comment box below.

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Robin Miller

Dr. Robin Miller, Sharecare Editorial Advisory Board Member, currently practices Internal Medicine and serves as the medical director of Triune Integrative Medicine, a highly innovative Integrative Medicine clinic in Medford, Oregon. She has produced the award-winning health series, “Is there a Doctor in the House,” which is shown nationwide on the GE-sponsored Patient Channel, and is the author of "Kids Ask the Doctor" and the co-author of “The Smart Woman's Guide to Midlife and Beyond: A No-Nonsense Approach to Staying Healthy after 50".

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