Icicles protruding from the bottom portion of a swing provide a gate to the scenic view of a snow-covered yard last winter in McCracken County. Although the scene is serene to many, it can cause some people to suffer more from seasonal affective disorder.
Behavioral health practitioners believe a lack of light may cause a person to feel depressed during winter months.
Dr. Christopher Adams, a psychiatrist at Lourdes Behavioral Health, said Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual list of diagnoses and symptoms used by practitioners.
“Typically, I tell patients symptoms of SAD may make them feel like a hibernating bear,” Adams said, “They may want to sleep, eat, feel grumpy, tired, run down and fatigued. It rarely gets to the point of a true clinical depressive disorder, but it does affect day-to-day function. You may want to sleep, and be able to sleep, but you never feel rested.”
Adams said he typically begins to see patients with SAD as seasons change and fall weather begins. Most begin around October or November, and may worsen as winter drags on.
For some patients with severe cases and other patients where SAD may exacerbate conditions of clinical depression or bipolar disorder, he may prescribe medication or change a drug or dosage level.
“We’re not sure of the specifics, but SAD appears to be related to a patient’s neurochemical balance changing with the seasons,” Adams said. “The treatment that seems to bring the best result is light therapy. People can buy a light box online.”
For light therapy, Adams recommends sitting in front of a special-purpose light box for at least 30 minutes a day, and keep it at least within the peripheral field of vision. When the bright light hits the retina, it alters serotonin levels, similar to an anti-depressant. Even sunlight exposure during winter and normal indoor lighting do not provide the same results as light box therapy.
Adams described the light box as a full-spectrum light, unlike anything available at a hardware store. They are available for purchase online and without a prescription.
For optimal mental health during the winter, Adams recommends a balanced diet, regular exercise, and vitamin D supplements.
Lack of exposure to sunlight can reduce vitamin D levels and cause SAD. Low vitamin D can also cause a lack of energy.
“We know a patient can have low vitamin D levels and SAD, but I’ve had patients with good vitamin D, but SAD and vice versa,” Adams said.