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Feeling blue? Maybe you have SAD

Posted: Mental Health » Women's Health » Winter Health » Seasonal | January 2nd, 2007



By Carol LaLiberte

SAD - Seasonal Affective Disorder

I recently called my friend Denise with the great news that I recommended her for an opportunity to teach a course at the college where I currently work. The chairperson of the department had asked me for recommendations for a medical social work course for second semester, and instantly Denise came to mind. She is warm and inviting, a seasoned professor who would do an outstanding job.

But as I told Denise the good news that it looked like she practically had this one in the bag, she was silent on the other end of the phone. “I can’t possibly teach second semester,” she began. “I can barely get out of bed come January, and sometimes March is even worse.”
I had forgotten that Denise suffers from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), so much so that each year she is forced to cut back on her work responsibilities once the days get shorter and sunlight is scarce.

Denise told me she had SAD a couple of winters ago. I taught across the hall from her and remember her walking towards me from the end of the hallway, striding slowly and looking pale and weak. I thought for sure she had the flu that was going around or perhaps was simply run down. When she got closer I realized just how ill she was. She could barely tell me how she felt without filling up with tears. Every movement took great effort.

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Her energy was completely depleted and yet perhaps even worse than how she felt was the fact that her co-workers didn’t really understand why she felt so bad for such an extended period of time. Some even suspected she was faking the whole thing, which seemed amazing to me given how terrible she looked and obviously felt.

She was looking into moving to the west coast to get some relief, as this disorder lasted for months during our New England winters and seemed to be more debilitating with each passing year. Phototherapy light treatments helped, and she used these diligently during the dismal winter months. Her doctor recommended antidepressants, and although she was hesitant at first, she admits they improved her ability to function at least minimally.

Are you sad or do you have SAD?

SAD is depression that happens only during the fall and winter. Seasonal Affective Disorder can be called “Winter Depression” or “winter absense of light depression” by those unfamiliar with the term SAD,

Some of the major symptoms include:

• oversleeping and trouble staying awake

• fatigue that is so pervasive it is difficult to maintain your normal routine

• intense craving for carbohydrates and sweets which often leads to weight gain

• feeling cranky and overwhelmed by the simplest tasks

• socially withdrawing from activity during the months when you are depressed, even though you may be quite social during the months when you are not suffering from depression

Approximately 4% to 6% of the general population have SAD or winter depression. It is more prevalent in women than men. Symptoms often begin around age 23. The risk of this disorder diminishes with age.

Treating SAD

One of the most common and effective treatments currently used with people diagnosed with SAD are phototherapy lights. Treatment often begins with a single daily session that lasts about 15 minutes in front of a light box. The frequency and duration can be increased or decreased depending on the results. When administered by a doctor, the use of phototherapy has been deemed to be relatively safe with few side effects. When side effects do occur, they are nearly always reversible once the treatment stops.

The light therapy boxes used to treat SAD differ greatly from commonly used household or workplace bulbs as well as sunlamps or tanning lights. A light therapy box is a full spectrum bright light, meaning that it emits no ultraviolet light and has a greater distribution of colors, making it appear much whiter than ordinary bulbs. These lights have a 10,000 Lux rating. Regular light bulbs are measured using Lumens rather than Luxes. For these reasons, SAD must be treated only with approved light therapy boxes, rather than attempting any at home versions using other types of bulbs or lights.

Research also indicates that taking the amino acid tryptophan may be as effective as sitting in front of phototherapy lights. Thought to be even more effective is the combination of tryptophan and light therapy.

Another natural treatment is the use of a negative ion generator. This may be used in conjunction with light therapy as well and with other medications if warranted.

Taking Vitamin D may also help. In a 1998 study, subjects given Vitamin D significantly improved their mood.

The use of melatonin is not recommended for someone suffering from SAD. In fact, in some people the use of melatonin can make SAD symptoms even worse.

A misunderstood condition

SAD is greatly misunderstood like other forms of depression. Many people tell Denise that they feel less energetic or depressed when the weather is cloudy or winter hits — but feeling blue because of the weather and being knocked on your feet for months are worlds apart.

The acronym doesn’t help. Feeling sad and experiencing depression are very different things. One is fleeting and common to the human condition, the other is a mental health disorder, often misdiagnosed or down played, with similar symptoms as clinical depression. Left untreated, like other forms of depression, it can lead to suicide.

SAD can impact not only your work life but your personal life as well. There is still much that is unknown about this disorder. As with other mental health concerns, confer with a medical professional well versed in the treatment of this disorder to ensure that proper help is received. Each person responds differently to the treatment options available and therefore should be monitored during the months when this disorder is in full swing.

Read more
Essentials of Psychology, ninth edition, Dennis Coon, 2003
National Organization for Seasonal Affective Disorders (NOSAD)
P.O. Box 40190
Washington, DC 20016
Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms

© Carol LaLiberte

Carol LaLiberte is a newspaper columnist and frequent contributor to Vegetarian Baby and Child www.vegetarianbaby.com magazine. She is also a college professor on staff at several colleges, teaching both psychology and sociology courses. Carol lives in Massachusetts with her husband and 7-year-old son.


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