Posted by on January 7, 2012 - 6:41am

This time of year, the shorter days and lack of sunlight can cause some people to feel depressed. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, affects between 10 to 20 percent of Americans, primarily younger adults and women. Although the exact cause of SAD is unknown, experts believe changes in melatonin and serotonin levels, or a disruption in the body’s internal clock may be to blame. John Stracks, MD, from Northwestern Integrative Medicine says there are ways to beat the blues caused by SAD and suggests those who experience symptoms visit their doctor before symptoms become severe.

“SAD is a type of depression that shouldn’t be ignored and can be treated,” said Stracks, who specializes in family medicine and integrative medicine. “With the proper regimen, people who experience symptoms can learn to feel content.”   People who suffer from SAD often experience some or all of the following symptoms.

• Feeling depressed, fatigued or lethargic
• Difficulty waking up in the morning and a tendency to sleep more often
• Increased appetite, especially for foods full of carbohydrates, leading to weight gain
• Loss of interest or enjoyment in activities once enjoyed or with others
• Trouble concentrating

Traditional treatments for SAD include psychotherapy, medication and therapeutic light therapy.

“Light therapy works by mimicking sunlight, which causes a biochemical change in your brain that lifts your mood,” said Stracks. “This is often used in conjunction with visits with a therapist to combat depression.”   Stracks also recommends alternative approaches. “If your symptoms are milder, the combination of good nutrition, natural supplements, exercise and relaxation or meditation can be very effective in improving your mood,” said Stracks.

While he encourages those who believe they suffer from SAD to see a doctor to determine appropriate therapies and treatment, Stracks suggests the following tips that anyone can do to keep their mood balanced this time of year.

• Sleep well - Make sure you wake up at the time same every day, including weekends. Doing so will keep your body’s internal clock in sync.

• Let the light in - Expose yourself to as much sunlight as possible by opening your blinds at home and making sure that your work space has natural or bright light.

• Control your cravings - Eat a balanced diet while limiting the amount of carbohydrates you are eating. Carbohydrates can provide a short-term energy boost but leave you feeling worse later in the day.

• Embrace an exercise routine - Exercise is not only good for your physical health, but also helps relieve the stress and anxiety that can increase the symptoms of SAD. Yoga and Pilates type classes are a good way to relax and exercise at the same time.

• Learn to manage your stress - Take time to relax each day and try to manage your stress so it doesn’t lead to depression and overeating. Make it a point to stay connected to people who are important to you, as they will help you remain calm and happy.

“Good spirits don’t have to disappear as the hours of sunlight dwindle during the winter,” added Stracks. “This time of year should be the most enjoyable, but if you find yourself feeling down, there are things you can do to help.”

Source:  Northwestern Memorial Hospital

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