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The SAD Truth of Northern Living: Canadians Must Take Measures to Decrease Risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Posted on March 2nd, 2017

Although Ontario’s Wiarton Willie and Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Sam both predicted only six more weeks of winter on last month’s Groundhog Day, we still have a way to go before the snow melts and the flowers begin to poke through the ground. This last spell of winter is also when symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) could be at their strongest before dissipating in spring.

SAD is a type of 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 a little more strongly

SAD in Canada

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 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.

The faces of SAD

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 high 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.

Defeating SAD

SAD can be treated using the same methods as other mental health disorders, such as through use of anti-depressants, psychotherapy, or mood stabilizing medication. But the most common and effective 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.

A bright light box 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 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. If you have an eye condition that makes your eyes vulnerable to light damage, be especially cautious.

A healthy mindset to ward off SAD

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 boosts feelings of well-being and decreases feelings of depression.
  • Put your health first. Ensure you get sufficient rest and relaxation time. Be physically active and choose healthy foods for meals. Avoid the use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Stay on track. If you are on a treatment plan, take your medication as directed and don’t skip any scheduled therapy appointments.
  • Maintain a positive outlook. Wiarton Willie and Shubenacadie Sam say spring is just around the corner.

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 FYidoctors optometrist today.