S.A.D (Seasonal Affective Disorder)

Health Matters: Let’s Talk About S.A.D

I just saw the Disney animated movie “Frozen” with my daughter and I loved the snow man, Olaf. If you haven’t seen the film, he’s a cute little fellow who doesn’t realize that hot and cold don’t mix well. He’s a cheerful snowman who might have a minor predisposition to the winter blues as he fondly thinks about the idea of summer. He, not realizing that he’d melt in the summer heat, thinks about all the joyful times that come from lying around on a sunny beach, swimming in warm pools, and bathing in a hot tub with his snowman buddies. So if a snowman can get the winter blues then what about the rest of us?

It’s no mystery that weather can affect our mood; but for some, the winter months can be a signal for some very depressing times ahead. In the medical world it’s cleverly called S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder). This condition is most commonly seen in the winter months but can affect people in the summer too. It’s estimated that 2-3% of Ontarians suffer from this significantly and 15% with minor symptoms of depression.1 So that means almost one in five people are affected by this, which is quite significant. In my experience, many people don’t even know about this condition and try hard to secretly ``fight`` through it in silence.

So what exactly is S.A.D. and what can be done about it?

First of all S.A.D. is a condition where people have various symptoms of depression (it’s thought to be related to the lack of sunlight with the shorter winter days which affects the body’s internal clock). An easy way to think if you might have S.A.D. is if you have difficulty coping with the day-to-day activities of life at a particular time of the year. Some of the key symptoms of S.A.D. include the following:

(but note you should always consult your doctor to discuss your symptoms further)

  • Change in appetite (usually increased cravings for starches or sugary foods)

  • Weight change

  • Poor energy

  • Feeling of being drained/tired

  • Poor motivation to do things

  • Increased irritability

  • Avoiding social interactions

  • Feeling anxious

  • A sense of hopelessness

  • Poor concentration

  • Sleeping more than normal

So after you have seen you doctor, he or she can go over different options to see if you, in fact, have S.A.D. (or something else) and what can be done about it. Currently the main treatment options are:

1) Light therapy

2) Psychotherapy/Behaviour/Lifestyle modifications

3) Medications

Light therapy has shown to help people and is generally considered safe, affordable, not time consuming, and easily done in the comfort of your own home.

Some lifestyle modifications include the following:

  • Make your environment brighter by opening blinds allowing more light to enter your home

  • Sit nearer to windows to get natural light

  • Get outside more during peak hours of light

  • Exercise regularly; walking in the mall is a great idea

  • Take care of yourself, eat properly and regularly, and definitely avoid the almighty depressive 
elixir - alcohol

  • Interact with others; keep your environment social 
and fun

  • If you can afford a trip down south to a warmer place, plan for it

  • Some people find yoga, meditations, and massage treatment helpful

As well, the old adage is very true, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Living a healthy lifestyle all year long can put you in a healthier frame of mind. Just exercising or simply increasing your activity level alone will allow your body to have more natural endorphins (happy juice) which has a lasting effect. Doing this well before the winter months can minimize winter blues and take the bite out of winter.

Focusing on more positive things in your life can also serve to add more “light” in your life. I have a patient who has his grandchildren’s photos everywhere in his home, even in his bathroom. He says, “When I’m brushing my teeth my day begins with a smile and I say all the things I am grateful for in my life; it puts me in a great energized state of mind.” Even focusing on the language we use on a day-to-day basis can affect our well being. Saying “I’m tired, sad, angry, frustrated” creates an inclination to move toward that unconscious goal you’ve set up for yourself. The body has a natural way of responding to what the mind is focusing on and vice versa. Remembering the importance of the mind-body connection is important in living a more fun, healthy life full of vitality.

The above are some initial comments, but as a doctor I always advise that you see your own doctor to personally go over your own medical issues and possible treatment plan. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. She/he can partner with you in monitoring your success and the strategies you are using. You may even have a few ideas of your own to share.

In summary, S.A.D. doesn’t have to be all bad, with some initial understanding, guidance from your doctor, and some proactive treatment strategies you, like Olaf the snowman, can let the winter blues melt away while making the best of our great White North.

Dr. Lalit Chawla MD, CCFP,FRCP

1. Canadian Mental Health Association,(2013). Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Retrieved from http://www.cmha.ca/mental_health/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad

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