# Friday, November 21, 2008
                 

With the lessening of daylight hours, many Canadians are prone to experiencing the 'winter blues'. For many people the lack of sunlight causes only slight depression, but for others it can be cause of clinical depression. In very rare cases Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can also occur in summer months as well. Canadians who are affected by SAD can be much debilitated throughout the winter months, unable to function at their normal level of productivity.

Since the days get shorter the further north someone is, SAD is more common in northern countries, i.e. Canada. It is estimated that 3% of the Canadian population will experience symptoms of SAD within their lifetime and 15% of all Canadians will experience the milder form of SAD, i.e. the 'winter blahs'. Episodes of SAD are very similar to the episodes of depression and can be difficult to diagnose. Medical conditions such as thyroid problems can cause the same symptoms that people who have SAD may experience.

Although awareness of SAD as a condition affecting mental health has been around for 150 years, it was only recognized as a disorder in the early 1980s. As such, many people who have SAD may not be aware of the disorder and/or that treatment is available. Research is still ongoing as to determine the causes of SAD, as of yet there is no one confirmed cause. However the disorder seems to relate to the seasonal variations in light "A";a biological internal clock in the part of the brain which regulates the circadian (daily) rhythms. Circadian rhythm responds to changes in the season, partially because of the difference in the day length. With electricity and other modern implements of society, the circadian rhythm is telling the body to sleep as the hours are dark, but unlike past centuries, society rarely goes to bed when the hour turns dark; electricity means being able to be productive well past sunset. Other research shows that neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain) that help the regulation of sleep, mood and appetite may be disrupted in people who have SAD.

The symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder may be difficult to diagnose as the symptoms can be very similar to other forms of depression and/or bipolar disorder. Generally symptoms that recur for at least 2 consecutive winters without any other possible explanation for the changes in mood and behavior indicate the presence of SAD. These symptoms may include:

• Appetite change, particularly a craving for sweets and/or starchy foods.
• Weight gain.
• Decreased energy/fatigue.
• The tendency to oversleep.
• Difficulty concentrating as well as an increase in irritability.
• Feelings of despair and/or anxiety, some may experience thoughts of suicide.
• Avoidance of social situations.

For those who do suffer from SAD, these symptoms will generally disappear when the spring arrives. Some people's symptoms may disappear quite suddenly with a short time of heightened activity; others may experience the gradual dissipation of their symptoms.

Although some teenagers and children may experience SAD, it generally begins in people who are over the age of 20. It is more prevalent in women than in men. The risk of SAD does decrease with age. SAD may also affect shift workers and those who are naturally deprived from natural sources of light in their work environment.

For those people who suffer from long periods of depression during the winter months as well as major changes in sleeping and eating habits, consult with your healthcare provider as soon as possible. There are effective treatments available that can relieve these symptoms. As with other forms of clinical depression, anti-depressants may be prescribed in order to help cope with the symptoms. Anyone displaying symptoms of clinical depression are strongly urged to obtain medical help immediately.

For those who are experiencing milder symptoms of SAD there are ways of lessening these negative effects. These include:

• Spending more time outdoors during the available daylight hours in order to have the maximum exposure to sunlight.
• Rearranging your furniture (or work space if possible) in order to be near a window; make sure to keep the curtains open as much as possible.
• Install skylights; add more lamps.
• Maintain a physically active lifestyle since exercise relieves stress, builds energy and increases both your physical and mental well-being.
• Taking a walk during your lunch period in order to experience sunlight.
• If affordable, try to book a vacation in a sunny part of the world; be aware however, that symptoms may occur once you come back home. Make sure that you have the appropriate travel insurance for your trip!

Light therapy has proven to be effective for many people who suffer from mild to moderate SAD. Light therapy involves sitting beside a specialized fluorescent light box for several minutes a day. Before starting light therapy, consult with your physician about whether this is the best alternative for your needs. If light therapy has been approved by your doctor, be sure you are buying an approved light box. The box you purchase should be labeled CSA approved for use in Canada. Make sure that the device has a filter that blocks ultraviolet rays, which are harmful to human skin. It is always a wise idea to purchase your light box from a reputable company that has a history of good business practices.

For more information regarding Seasonal Affective Disorder, you can visit the Canadian Mental Health Association website.

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