The Ottumwa Courier

December 8, 2012

Seasonal Affective Disorder can affect anyone

Shorter, darker days can lead to depression, changes in sleep and appetite

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Yes, it’s a cold, dreary day in December. The dark winter months may have you feeling depressed. Does that mean you’ve got Season Affective Disorder or just the winter blues?

Dr. Jefrey Start, director of the sleep disorder center at Ottumwa Regional Health Center, says there’s not really a difference.

Health professionals define Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as recurring depression with a seasonal beginning and ending. While some people do have SAD tendencies in spring and summer, it is widely connected to the winter months.

“I don’t know anybody, even if they enjoy snow, that it doesn’t get to be too much after a while. It’s just not enjoyable anymore, and their outlook gets down,” Start said. “Unlike some other kinds of depression, (SAD) is something people can very easily accept. It’s something they can relate to.”

Anyone who has lived in Iowa for any length of time knows that this time of year means shorter, darker days. Even at the beginning of winter, Start says the lack of light can dramatically affect mood, sleep, appetite, weight and other daily activities.

While it’s not like throwing a switch and realizing you have symptoms of SAD, many people will notice a change in some personal characteristics and match them to the changing seasons.

“Most people can keep this in perspective,” Start said. “Technically speaking, this is your body and your brain reacting to the reduction of light. When you break out of winter, you’ll really notice the difference.”

Start says those who already have depression are more likely to have SAD, and the symptoms are often more noticeable with age.

“If you’re concerned, go to the doctor and talk about it. If it fits the pattern of the seasons and then abates, then you’ll feel better in the spring,” Start said. “But you don’t need a doctor to put a fancy name on it. If a well-lit room makes you feel better, then it’s not rocket science. It’s common sense.”

The treatments for SAD vary depending on the severity of the symptoms. Milder cases may simply need some behavior modification. Start says many people respond well to light therapy, which may include bright light treatment in a light box. More severe problems may require antidepressants and therapy with a mental health specialist.

Since we can’t hibernate until winter is over, there are two very simple ways to gain the upper hand on SAD. Start says the average person can fight back by finding well-lit places to spend time and being as active as possible.

“Make sure to do as much as you possibly can — get out of house and into well-lit areas. You’ll find you feel better in the light,” he said. “And get out and exercise. Go to the gym, take a walk. More activity will help because your brain can regulate better if you’re active.”

During the winter months, Start suggests going to the gym, where they’ll have bright lights on. Places like the mall, the library or anywhere with more light than outside are great places to warm up, get some exercise and keep your mind working.