Let There Be Light: Living With Seasonal Affective Disorder

sander back view
Creative Commons License photo credit: OregonDOT   

 My daughter Kara began taking afternoon naps the moment she came home from school in tenth grade.  Often I would have to wake her out of a deep sleep at dinnertime.  Later as a freshman at DePaul University she became depressed and dropped out after her first semester.  It was then that I recognized both she and I suffered from the condition called SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

The US National Library of Medicine notes that “some people experience a serious mood change when the seasons change.” People affected may sleep too much, have no energy, and crave sweets and starchy foods. They also feel depressed. Krisha McCoy states, “Scientists believe SAD is related to variations in the brain levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in regulating functions such as mating, feeding, energy balance, and sleep.”

In the spring and summer she was fine but the stress from the lack of light in the dark, cold winter, windy; city months in Chicago took its toll on her.  She was a victim of the seasons.  I recalled what I heard on the radio years earlier and we made arrangement for her to transfer to New Mexico State.  Kara currently resides in Phoenix AZ.

If your moods change because of lack of sunlight in winter months or if you work in a basement without proper lighting, work the night shift or travel frequently across time zones you could also suffer from lack of sunlight as you constantly fight against your natural body rhythms.

Many people with symptoms notice lack of energy, change in appetite, weight gain, loss of libido, change in wake/sleep patterns, poor quality of sleep, avoid social situations, irritability, inability to concentrate, tearfulness—even suicidal thoughts.

The following are methods you can help bring a dose of sunshine to your light deprived winter months.

A fluorescent light box– The main device used in phototherapy.  The length of session depends on the intensity of exposure. Light boxes can be purchased without a prescription but a diagnosis by a qualified health professional is recommended. 

Exercise-according to The Journal of Sports and Medicine aerobic exercise is the best.  Walking outside in the middle of the day when the light is the brightest is very helpful.  A 20-minute walk in the sunlight and fresh air can boost serotonin levels in the brain. Take up snowshoeing or cross country skiing, a little goes a long way.  If you invite a friend it can be relaxing and fun!  

Plan a vacation in January, February or early March in a sunny climate.  Being a runner I go to Phoenix to see my daughter and compete in a local road race while I’m there.  If you can’t afford to do that add fun to your life in other ways.  Play summer music, rent summer movies, throw an indoor picnic and invite friends.  

Be vigilant about not complaining about  the weather and refuse to listen to others complain.  It’s difficult enough to keep your energy up instead choose to look for ways to lighten up and brighten up!

Add light to your home.  Choose light colors for walls, light colored furniture, forget dark curtains and sit near big bright windows.  Force spring bulbs such as paper whites, grape hyacinths, and cheery daffodils.  You can’t control the gray sky but you can brighten the inside with light and beauty.

Use aromatherapy to help your mind and body.  Lavender creates calm and soothes nerves.  Chamomile lessons irritability.  Sage enhances moods.  Lemon revitalizes and jasmine extends euphoria.  Seaweed uplifts spirits and eucalyptus increases energy levels.

Include summer foods in your diet:  Fresh fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, watermelon, sweet peas, salads or anything with low carbohydrates.

Finally, seasonal affective disorder is a serious type of depression; to a large extent it impaired my life. If your symptoms are severe seek help from a physician to discuss how SAD affects your health and well-being and the possibility of an anti-depressant medication.  A quote comes to mind that says, “A smart person asks for help but a wise person receives it.” 

Relocate. Many people see this as extreme. It isn’t. It’s the quality of your life we are talking about. Be bold, get a plan and make it happen! Take bold action or choose not to complain. It’s your choice.

In Michigan on average there are 158 sunny days a year. I relocated to Queen Creek, Arizona last September. This will be my second winter in Arizona. To see the sun and the bright blue sky on average 300 days a year is a big change for a Midwesterner like me. I am thriving here and to think I never have to go for a run in slush, snow and ice is truly a miracle!

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