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If you are feeling SAD these days, what can you do to combat it?

Toy clown face sadMany of our patients are feeling SAD sooner than usual – this isn’t surprising, considering how early the first taste of winter struck Eastern Ontario.

We are speaking, of course, about Seasonal Affective Disorder. As defined by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), SAD is “a type of depression that occurs during the same season each year. Researchers think that SAD is caused by changes in the level of exposure to sunlight.”

As the days grow shorter and we see more cloud cover on those rainy and snowy days, the amount of sunlight which we are exposed to can dramatically decrease versus the peak of summer when the sun rides high in the sky.

But why does our level of sun exposure matter?

Physical benefits of the sun

We all know the risks of too much sun exposure – the skin cancer risks from that ultraviolet radiation and how it can leave you looking older than you actually are.

But moderate amounts of sun exposure are good for you, too. For example, those same UV wavelengths stimulate your body’s production of Vitamin D. It’s very difficult to consume enough of this essential vitamin from food alone – you either need to get your sun time or take a quality supplement. According to Osteoporosis Canada, Vitamin D is important because it helps your body absorb calcium for stronger bones and it improves muscle function for greater balance and coordination.

As far north of the equator as we are, it’s conventional medical advice to take a Vitamin D supplement during the winter months because we just don’t get enough sun.

Mental benefits of the sun

As far as SAD is concerned, that lack of sunlight exposure also reduces the body’s production of two key neurotransmitters – chemical substances that convey signals, or messages, between cells.

The first is Serotonin, which is responsible for a variety of complex functions in the body and the brain. The most relevant in this case is its role as the “happy chemical.” Serotonin contributes to wellbeing and happiness. It also helps to regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycles and its internal clock – something that of course needs to adapt with the recent Daylight Savings Time change.

The second neurotransmitter is Dopamine. This affects your physical motor control and your emotional responses. It also has an impact on how you feel pleasure, your ability to think and plan, to be motivated and focused, and to take an interest in things.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

According to the CMHA, they include:

  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Problems sleeping
  • Irritability, fatigue, and agitation
  • Loss of interest in work, hobbies, people, or sex
  • Withdrawal from family members and friends
  • Feeling useless, hopeless, excessively guilty, pessimistic or having low self-esteem or feeling slowed down
  • Trouble concentrating, remembering and making decisions
  • Crying easily or feeling like crying but not being able to
  • Thoughts of suicide (which should always be taken seriously)
  • A loss of touch with reality, hearing voices (hallucinations) or having strange ideas (delusions)

Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with SAD. Young people are more likely to develop SAD and this risk decreases with age. A family history of SAD or other forms of depression increases the risk.

Not surprisingly, SAD is more common the further north or south you live from the equator – like us here in Eastern Ontario.

What can you do about it?

The first and most obvious solution is to get more sun – even if it comes in a box with a power cord.

A light therapy box is a kind of lamp that emits artificial light with the same wavelengths as natural sunlight to stimulate that neurotransmitter production in your body. The standard approach is to sit next to the lamp for 20 to 60 minutes a day, preferably soon after waking.

It may take anything from a couple of days to a couple of weeks for this to yield positive results. For some people, light therapy alone is not enough.

What is the best treatment option for you or a family member who is suffering from SAD? Book an appointment and consult with your family doctor. It’s important to have a proper diagnosis from a qualified medical professional and their advice on treatment options.

This includes advice on how to pick a quality light therapy box with the right intensity and type of light – do your homework before purchasing a cheap product online.

With the right intervention, your SAD symptoms can be brought to heel. But first, you have to listen to your body and take action.

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