Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment

Woman on a Park Bench
December 1, 2014 (Updated: January 22, 2015)
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

“Antidepressants are making Mom worse.” That’s why Tracy brought her mother, Elinor, in to see me. “She doesn’t want to read or play board games with her friends in the assisted living center or go for rides, and she says she feels like she can’t think straight anymore. I’m really worried about her and thought you might have some ideas on how to make Mom feel better.”

Diagnosing illness is a tricky business. Most doctors do their best to help patients, but certain conditions are very similar to others, and teasing them apart can be difficult. For many physicians, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is an ailment that flies under the radar, and it’s easy to see how it can be overlooked or mistaken for something else.

The symptoms, more common in women, include:

  • Brain fog
  • Headaches
  • Lack of interest in favorite activities
  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Excessive sleep without feeling rested
  • Increased appetite
  • Carbohydrate cravings
  • Weight gain

These symptoms can be mistaken for depression. But antidepressants seldom work on SAD because it’s a different problem. SAD symptoms appear to be triggered by short, dark winter days interfering with the body’s circadian rhythms and neurotransmitter production.

Because I took the time to get a complete picture of Elinor’s health, I asked Tracy, “Has this ever happened to your mother before?”

She thought for a minute and then said, “She used to get really bad ‘holiday blues’ around Christmas, especially after Dad passed away, but she was fine by the time spring came.”

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“Holiday blues” was all I needed to hear.

When you get less sunlight, your levels of serotonin, your body’s “feel good” chemical, plummets. Our bodies attempt to increase serotonin by triggering a craving for carbohydrates. While carbohydrates are important in serotonin production, eating more carbs does not fix your SAD. Instead, it leads to weight gain, sleepiness or fatigue, and even more carb cravings. Fortunately, there are ways to turn SAD around and enjoy the winter season.

Fight SAD with these three steps

There are three key steps to taking your life back this winter.

  1. Eat an anti-SAD diet. Proper balance of key nutrients is important for everyone, but that’s especially true for SAD sufferers. Balancing carb intake with the right proportions of protein and fats (300 grams of carbs, 45-80 grams of healthy fats, and 50-65 grams of protein) is a must if you really want to free yourself from this condition. I also suggest avoiding sugar. Sweets seem to make the condition worse for most of my patients.
  2. Exercise regularly. Exercise is one of the most effective remedies for ordinary depression, and it works well for SAD, too. Simply set aside 20 to 30 minutes each day to walk, dance, or engage in some other physical activity you enjoy. No matter what, you can always walk in place indoors while watching TV, talking on the phone, or listening to the radio.
  3. Brighten your day. Before she went in assisted living, Elinor took advantage of the mild California winter to garden; this kept her SAD in check. If you live someplace that doesn’t get dangerously cold during the winter, make sure to go out during the day. A lunchtime walk is what this doctor is ordering for your health. If the weather’s too bad in your part of the country, check out bright-light boxes and broad-spectrum light bulbs. Studies show that some individuals with SAD respond well to the light boxes, which mimic the sunlight we would obtain outdoors. You typically use a light box 30 minutes a day, so you can combine your light-box time with exercise and take care of two birds with one stone!  Another option is to use a lamp with broad-spectrum light bulbs. Some of my patients use them at their desks or while reading to get an extra boost of light during winter.

Elinor joined the daily walking program, and she started taking some of the supplements I recommend to all patients for general well-being: vitamin D, omega-3, and melatonin for better sleep. Within a month, Tracy called and told me, “It’s just great to have my mom back and raring to go!”

As you can see, there are plenty of options for treating seasonal blues, so don’t suffer through another winter. With a few well-chosen lamps, a little exercise, and a well-balanced diet, you will be back to normal in just a few weeks—with plenty of time left to enjoy the holiday season!

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