Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, affects nearly 20% of people in the U.S. Known also as winter depression or the winter blues, people suffering from SAD can experience mild to moderate symptoms of depression as well as severe symptoms. In severe cases of SAD, symptoms include thoughts of suicide, social withdrawal, trouble concentrating at school or at work, and alcohol or substance abuse.
When severe symptoms of SAD occur, the person should seek medical attention immediately for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. Depending upon the degree of the symptoms, there are a variety of treatments that can alleviate SAD and help the person feel better throughout the season.
Light Therapy for SAD
In winter, days are shorter and light is limited causing a disruption in sleep levels, hormone levels and brain chemical levels. The brain chemical serotonin along with the hormone melatonin becomes low due to less sun exposure. For this reason, doctors prescribe light therapy for patients diagnosed with SAD. Light therapy consists of purchasing a light therapy box and having the patient sit next to it for a prescribed amount of time each day. The exposure to light helps elevate and regulate serotonin and melatonin in the body so the patient no longer feels depressed. Additional ways a person can do natural light therapy is to:
- Sit beside windows more often during the day.
- Spend time outside each day. This can help even on a cloudy day.
- Add extra lighting in their home, larger windows, or skylights in the ceiling.
Herbal or Nutritional Supplements for SAD
Herbal remedies have been used for centuries to treat depression, anxiety and mood swings, all symptoms of SAD. Adding the proper nutritional supplements may also help alleviate mild to moderate symptoms of SAD. These include:
- Ginseng – This herb has been used for over 2,000 years to treat many ailments but is widely used to soothe depression, decrease mood swings and boost mental performance. Ginseng comes in capsule form and as a tea. This herb can disrupt the performance of some prescription medications so check with a doctor before taking ginseng.
- St. John’s wort – This herbal medication has long been used to treat mild to moderate depression and anxiety. St. John’s wort comes in capsule form. Speak to a doctor before taking this herb as it can negatively affect some prescription medications.
- Melatonin – This is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland at the base of the brain. Melatonin helps to regulate sleep patterns, and too little in the system causes serotonin levels to drop which results in depression. Melatonin comes in capsule or tablet form and should be taken only under a doctor’s supervision.
- Magnesium – A study published at the National Center for Biotechnology Information website states that adding magnesium to the diet can greatly help people suffering from mild to severe depression. Most people do not get enough magnesium in their diet, so for those suffering from SAD, taking a magnesium supplement may alleviate their depression.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Eating a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids has shown to relieve symptoms of depression. Adding more cold-water fish, nuts, flaxseed, canola oil or soybeans to the diet will increase intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Supplement capsules are also available.
Medications for SAD
People suffering from moderate to severe symptoms of SAD may find treatment with antidepressant medications beneficial. A doctor may prescribe the medication to begin in the fall and stop in the summer unless it is necessary throughout the year. Antidepressants that may be prescribed are Wellbutrin XL, Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, Sarafem or Effexor. It is important to understand that it can take several weeks for the medication to alleviate depression and changes in antidepressants may be necessary until the appropriate one is found. The doctor may prescribe an antidepressant along with other therapies, such as light therapy and a change in diet, to help the patient deal with SAD.
Go to the nearest treatment center in your area for more information.
Other Ways to Treat SAD
Adding exercise to the daily schedule is a good way to reduce stress and anxiety and ward off the symptoms of SAD. Exercise increases the “feel good” endorphins in the brain and helps to keep the mind and body balanced. Yoga, walking, strength training or any outdoor winter activity such as snowshoeing or skiing are all good ways to add exercise.
Managing stress is another important way to treat SAD. Learning ways to calm stress at work, such as taking deep breaths or taking a quick walk around the office, can help lower anxiety. Meditation and massage therapy are also good ways to relieve stress.
The symptoms of SAD should be taken seriously and treatment should be sought if a person feels depressed for more than just a few days. By finding the right treatment, people who are affected by SAD can enjoy their lives every season of the year.
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