For most of Canada, we still have a ways to go before the snow melts and the flowers begin to poke through the ground. During winter, symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) are likely at their strongest before dissipating in spring.
SAD is a type of seasonal depression that affects people when the days are shorter in the fall and winter. In general, weather changes and sun exposure affect your mood and outlook. A sunny, bright day can make you feel happy, energetic, and upbeat, while a cold, dark day can make you feel the lows of winter.
SAD affects about 2 to 3% of the Canadian population. While SAD can affect some children and teenagers, it is most common in people between 20 and 50 years of age, particularly in women. Although the precise cause of SAD symptoms is unknown, genetics and age may be factors. Most evidence suggests that it arises from abnormalities in how your body manages its internal clock. Even though our bodies are built with an internal clock that keeps us in sync with night and day, this clock is not always precise and relies on the intensity of sunlight to provide cues. These cues originate in the retina. The retina creates signals that pass through the optic nerve to the brain, activating chemical changes in the body.
One of the main chemical changes is the regulation and suppression of the hormone melatonin. This hormone helps control body temperature, hormone secretion and sleep, and is thought to play a major role in SAD. Melatonin is produced in an area of your brain during hours of darkness. Throughout the low-light months of fall and winter, people with SAD produce more melatonin than normal – enough to cause symptoms of depression.
SAD is responsible for low mood, reduced interest in normally pleasurable activities, decreased concentration, oversleeping (often an increase of four hours or more each day), low energy and fatigue, and sometimes depression.
Canadians are at an increased risk of developing SAD because of our geographical location. SAD is more common among those who live further away from the equator because of the decreased amounts of sunlight and hours of daylight during the winter. Other risk factors include age (young to middle-aged adults have a higher risk than elderly people), family history (people with SAD may be more likely to have blood relatives with SAD or another form of depression), and previous diagnosis of clinical depression or bipolar disorder. Symptoms of depression may worsen seasonally if you have one of these conditions. Some studies suggest eye colour may even have a role in whether or not someone experiences SAD (read this blog post for more on this).
SAD can be treated using the same methods as other mental health disorders, such as through anti-depressants, psychotherapy, or mood stabilizing medication. One possible treatment is increasing exposure to bright light. Since that is likely hard to come by throughout the long Canadian winter months, bright light therapy recreates it for you. According to the Mayo Clinic, light therapy can treat SAD by mimicking natural outdoor light.
A bright lightbox is a small, portable device that contains fluorescent bulbs or tubes that use a special type of light fixture to produce much brighter light than regular indoor lighting. By sitting near the light for approximately 15 to 30 minutes a day, the light is able to suppress the brain’s production of melatonin. A reduced amount of melatonin helps regulate your body’s internal clock and reduce symptoms of SAD. While a lightbox won’t cure SAD, it could ease your symptoms.
While this is happening, the light is registered by the retina, which then transfers impulses to the brain to normalize the body clock function. Before beginning light therapy, make sure you talk to your doctor about it. There are some disadvantages to light therapy, such as irritability, and agitation. Too much light therapy or screen time could deplete melatonin production and lead to the poor sleep patterns and irritability. If you have an eye condition that makes your eyes vulnerable to light damage, be especially cautious.
There is no way to prevent SAD, but taking the following steps can help you manage it:
Change your scenery. Plan a getaway to a sunny destination.
If travel isn’t possible, socializing can be beneficial. Make a point of connecting with people you enjoy spending time with. Interacting with others can boost feelings of well-being.
Put your health first. Ensure you get sufficient rest and relaxation time. Be physically active and choose healthy foods for meals. Try limiting the consumption of alcohol.
Stay on track. If you are on a treatment plan, take your medication as directed and try not to skip any scheduled therapy appointments.
Most episodes of SAD end in April every year once natural sun exposure is less difficult to access. If you feel like you may want to consider light therapy, you can start by making an appointment to talk to your family doctor about the SAD symptoms you are experiencing. FYidoctors optometrists are also available to discuss any vision-related concerns.