Rishauda Wilson, 65, does not look forward to the fall and winter months because she feels they are dreary, dark, and depressing. “I get so down in the dumps from late October to about April. I am unmotivated, moody, and just feel hopeless with the early arrival of darkness. My energy level is zero, and I can’t seem to get all of me going,” says the Fairfield, CT. retired teacher.
Wilson is part of a growing number of people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder or SAD. Medical experts contend that SAD may be related to changes in the amount of daylight we get. Over ten million people struggle with severe SAD, similar to depression that is most likely to occur in late fall and last until spring rolls around. Another 20 percent of folks have a milder form of the disorder. Women are also four times more affected by SAD than men.
Unfortunately, there is a lower awareness of SAD and its treatment in the Black community.
Signs and Symptoms
The red flags for SAD may begin mildly but then become more pronounced as time progresses. The more common symptoms of the condition are:
Loss of energy
Appetite or weight changes
Lack of concentration
Thoughts of suicide or death
No one knows what exactly causes SAD, but researchers do know, however, that there are several factors at play:
Serotonin: When there is less sunlight, the brain chemical that affects mood, serotonin, may trigger depression.
Melatonin: When the body’s melatonin levels are disrupted, usually as a result of seasonal changes, sleep is thrown into a tailspin.
Biological clock: Since the number of sunlight hours is reduced during the fall and winter, the body’s internal clock becomes upset, and this leads to depression.
There are several factors that can increase your chances of developing SAD:
Heredity: Most SAD sufferers already have family members who are struggling with the condition.
Depression or bipolar disorder: SAD sufferers who have been diagnosed with these disorders will have a more difficult time seasonally with their diagnosis.
Location: Those who live in the north appear to have more difficulty managing their diagnosis because of the decreased sunlight during winter.
SAD is not easy to diagnose, so how can a healthcare practitioner tell it is present?
Lab work: A doctor might order a complete blood count or a thyroid function test
Psychological workup: A mental health professional will check for any signs of depression and probably have a questionnaire handy to cover the areas of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Physical exam: A doctor will perform a general exam and ask about mental health as well. Depression has also been linked to numerous physical health problems.
If a physician recommends light therapy to help cope with SAD, a patient will have to sit a few feet away from a special light box or wear a light visor on their head. Light therapy typically lasts about half an hour and is mostly used in the fall and winter months. The treatment must be done within the first waking hour of each day. The therapy, which triggers a brain chemical to regulate mood, mimics natural outdoor light. The first-line therapy is said to improve melancholy moods within just a few days.
Natural spectrum light bulbs provide the spectrum of natural daylight and can easily be used as desk and floor lamps. They’re not as cumbersome as light boxes.
There are few symptoms associated with light therapy when it is used correctly. Light therapy side effects can occur, however, if it is used incorrectly, like late in the day:
Irritability and inability to sleep
Given the effectiveness of treatments for SAD, it would be a shame for anyone not to seek help for it. It is true that SAD is often correctly self-diagnosed, and anyone can purchase light devices, but other illness factors may be at play, and seeking the guidance of a qualified medical practitioner in both the diagnosis and treatment of SAD is the wisest thing to do.
Lifestyle changes can also help lift dark moods, like going outside more often in daylight hours, relaxation therapy, exercising, getting plenty of rest, and avoiding recreational drugs and alcohol.
Eating a diet that is high in proteins, vegetables, unprocessed foods, and complex carbohydrates is also helpful in coping with SAD. Moving further south is yet another option for those who are severely struggling with SAD.
Need more help?
- The American Psychological Association offers a list of therapists who can put together a SAD plan of action–apa.org.
- The SunBox Company offers a selection of light therapy lamps, sunbox.com.
- You can purchase natural full-spectrum lamp light bulbs at Amazon.com
- Bright Light Hat Visors and other light therapy products can be found at lighttherapyproducts.com