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Navigating healthcare

By Diane L. Marolla, LICSW

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

“Shorter daylight hours can affect sleep, productivity and state of mind. Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, may help. It uses light boxes emitting full-spectrum light to simulate sunlight.” – Dr. Andrew Weil

By the time you read this article, we will be a month into the days being shorter. The long summer days are a distant memory. Many of us struggle with the time changes each fall and each spring. When we drive to work, it is dark, and when we drive home from work it is dark. In the fall, we “fall back”, and gain an extra hour. In the spring, we “spring ahead” and lose an hour. At the end of the day, our bodies have their own internal mechanisms and the “falling back” and “springing forward” have an impact on our physical and mental health. Each year, as we go through this process, not knowing why we must do it in the first place, there are calls for changing the laws and ending this practice. As a child, I would ask my father the reason, and he would tell me it had something to do with the farmers. As an adult, I feel this annual ritual is pointless. As a mental health professional, I know that seasonal depression is a real disorder, and many individuals suffer during this time of year.

According to the research, the time change disrupts our mood, and our sleep. According to WebMD’s article on Seasonal Depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder), there are a couple of theories. The first theory is that “certain hormones made deep in the brain trigger attitude-related changes at certain times of the year.” This same article discusses a second theory that “less sunlight during fall and winter leads to the brain making less Serotonin, a chemical linked to the brain.” Simply said, Serotonin is the chemical in our body that effects our mood and motor skills. According to healthline.com, Serotonin is “considered a natural mood stabilizer. It is the chemical that helps with sleeping, eating, and digesting.” I call Serotonin the chemical in our body the “feel good” chemical. Also, according to healthline.com, Serotonin also helps “reduce depression, regulate anxiety, heal wounds, stimulate nausea, and maintain bone health.” And when they say the head and the gut are connected, they are. Serotonin is found in our stomachs and controls bowel movement and function.

People with SAD, according to the NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) may “overproduce the hormone melatonin. Darkness increases production of melatonin, which regulates sleep.” Melatonin is the hormone that regulates our sleep.

The symptoms of seasonal depression (SAD) during the winter months are the same as major depression. Symptoms include:

Having poor energy
Poor concentration
Feeling depressed almost every day
Feeling agitated
Problems sleeping
Thoughts of death or suicide

Additionally, these “winter blues” as some people refer to them will cause symptoms of:

Overeating (and craving carbohydrates)
Weight gain
Sleeping too much
Wanting to “hibernate” and not socialize with others

The treatment and therapies for SAD are the same as major depression, so it is important you seek the appropriate treatment from a qualified health professional. Treatment includes:

Medication (antidepressants)
Psychotherapy (talk therapy with a licensed mental health counselor)
Light therapy (exposing yourself to a “light box” so that you are replacing the lost light due to the season with artificial light). Also, expose yourself to as much “natural light” as you can. Go for a walk in the morning, and at lunch time to expose yourself to more natural light.
Vitamin D (Vitamin D is found in sunlight and food. Those diagnosed with SAD are found to have low Vitamin D levels. The studies regarding the effect of taking a Vitamin D supplement are mixed.)
Exercise and good nutrition of course always promote better mental and physical health.

Other recommendations for addressing low mood and energy this time of year, are what we should all be doing all year long. These include:

Watching our caffeine intake.
Do things that promote good sleep. Have a “nightly ritual” where you “wind down” before you go to bed. Lay off watching television and looking at electronic devices. Television, computers, tablets, and smart phones all stimulate the brain. Take a nice relaxing bath before bed. Do gratitude journaling or read a book. Meditate. When it is time for bed, make sure your bedroom is completely dark and cool. Spray your pillow and sheets with lavender.
Nicotine and alcohol plain and simply are never healthy. As I always say, just don’t smoke and don’t drink alcohol.

A note to the readers of my monthly article –

I want to wish you peace, joy and good health during the holiday season. It is an honor and a privilege to write this article every month. I hope you enjoy reading it. In 2020, if you would like me to write on a topic, or if you want to share your healthcare story with me, please send me an email at Marollaconsultants@yahoo.com.