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SAD and How to Get Happy

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depressive disorder that usually strikes during late fall and winter and causes sufferers to feel depressed, lethargic, fatigued, irritable, and experience headaches, anxiety and cravings for sweets and starches. Sufferers usually feel fine during the spring and summer months but begin to experience symptoms as fall turns to winter, with the depression peaking in January and February when the days are darkest and nights are longest. It usually first appears when individuals are in their 20s or 30s and is more common in women (although this could be due to the fact that women are more likely to report depression and seek help).

SAD affects approximately 1 in 20 people, although the rate varies depending on how far you are from the equator. For instance, SAD is virtually unheard of in tropical climates near the equator, while approximately 1 percent of people in Florida suffer from it and nearly 10 percent in New Hampshire. A whopping 20 percent of Swedes are thought to suffer from these winter blues.

Scientists aren't sure precisely what causes SAD, although they believe it has to do with the amount of light received during the overcast and short winter days. The lack of light can disrupt our natural circadian rhythms which regulate our internal clock that tells us when to sleep and when to wake. They believe this disruption may trigger the depression and anxiety. Other scientists believe that the depression may be caused by the increase in melatonin production that occurs during the long winter nights, or the lack of serotonin, which is related to sunlight. Scientists believe wintertime changes in the ionization of air may also play some role in SAD.

If you find yourself slumping into depression every fall as winter approaches, there are steps you can take to help:

  • Light therapy - So-called "light boxes" emit 2,500 to 10,000 lux (a unit of illuminance). Sitting in front of one of these boxes for 30 minutes each morning has been shown to benefit 80 to 85 percent of sufferers. These lights are approximately 10 to 20 times brighter than average indoor lights.

    Another type of light therapy is dawn simulation, in which a light placed next to the bed slowly grows brighter each morning.

  • Ionization - Emitting negatively-charged ions into the air during sleep has shown to be effective in many people, especially when paired with the dawn simulator.

  • Medication - Certain types of antidepressants, called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI), have been shown to relieve symptoms of SAD.

Other tips:

  • Regular exercise - Exercise relieves anxiety and reduces stress and tension, which can in turn relieve symptoms of SAD. Take every opportunity to exercise outdoors - even if it's a walk around the block on a cloudy day. An overcast day still provides as much or more light than a light box. Research has shown improved symptoms when sufferers took a one-hour daily walk outside.

  • Regular sleep schedule - Keep a regular sleep-and-wake schedule, even on the weekends. This will help your body regulate its circadian rhythms.

  • A balanced diet - SAD sufferers often crave sweets and starches, which provide a spike in energy, followed by a crash which can exacerbate depression. Eating foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B complexes and minerals, as well as complex carbohydrates, protein and plenty of fruits and vegetables can regulate your energy levels and alleviate symptoms.

  • Take a sun trip - If you can't bring the sun to you, take yourself to the sun! If you can afford it, take a trip to a sunny beach and soak up some rays for a week.

  • Talk it out - Psychotherapy can help you identify and control negative thoughts and moods which may help relieve depression.

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Featured Sites:

Cord Blood Registry
March of Dimes
Susan G. Komen


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