Seasonal affective disorder

By Erin A. Bills, MPH

As winter wraps our world in a glittering white blanket of snow, many feel the effects of the seasonal change as they begin to hibernate from their normal lives.

Seasonal affective disorder, or hibernation syndrome, is a type of depression that affects many people who live far north or south of the equator during the winter.

SAD is a result of changes in daylight and alters biochemical processes in our bodies. In Montana, we experience approximately nine hours of light per day during December. These long nights and shorter days limit exposure to sunlight, resulting in a drop in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to happiness. As serotonin levels drop, people experience mood changes.

Decreased exposure to sunlight also results in increased melatonin. Sometimes called “the hormone of darkness,” melatonin is responsible for our bodies’ circadian rhythms. As our biological clocks, circadian rhythms help determine when we’re awake or asleep, as well as influencing other biological, physiological and behavioral functions. Increased melatonin can result in oversleeping or fatigue, two common symptoms of SAD.

These symptoms can result in feelings of isolation, trouble at work or school, and suicidal thoughts, and may lead to substance abuse.

If you have a family history of seasonal depression, your risk is greater. Women are more likely to report symptoms, while they’re typically more severe in men.

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms, don’t wait to seek help. A physician or other health care provider can help establish an effective treatment plan.

Light therapy is one of the most popular and effective treatments for alleviating SAD. Since lack of sunlight is the major cause, exposure to light can help you feel like yourself again. Full spectrum light boxes and dawn simulators mimic natural sunlight, and studies have shown light therapy can be as effective as pharmaceutical treatment.

While it may seem silly, sitting by one of these devices for a prescribed time period helps stimulate serotonin production, regulate melatonin levels and increase vitamin D production, all of which contribute to a happier, healthier life. Light therapy is most effective in the morning. Common doses are about 5,000 lux per day.

There are also many lifestyle remedies to keep SAD symptoms at bay.

First, make your daily environment sunnier. This is Montana—not Alaska—and we do have sun in December. Pull back the curtains, spend the morning hours in the sunlight, get outside, and exercise regularly.

Add a regular yoga and/or meditation practice, or indulge in the well-documented benefits of massage therapy. Eat a diet high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish and nuts and are essential for healthy brain function. And finally, make sure you establish a social support system and socialize regularly.

If the winter blues are affecting you, a friend or a family member, remember that seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression. However, it’s treatable, and there are many options available to chase away the symptoms.

So, on the next sunny day try to get outside, enjoy the scenery and take advantage of one on the many great activities here in Southwest Montana.

Erin A. Bills, MPH, studied arctic health issues in Scandinavia prior to working with the Montana Office of Rural Health/Area Health Education Center at Montana State University. She lives in Big Sky and is dedicated to improving the health of Montana’s rural populations by developing effective preventive health policy. Follow her blog at projectbagbalm.wordpress.com.