Cure SAD-ness with Light Therapy
Enlightenment About Seasonal Affective Disorder Or SAD
It's almost humorous how the acronym SAD spells out the emotion felt by individuals that suffer Seasonal Affective Disorder, but it is surely not funny to them.
Sad or down is exactly how many feel when the days begin to shorten at the end of summer. For others, the start of school in September, the slight chill in the air of that month, or the smell of the first burning leaves compounds the sadness. One's children leave home to attend university. Friends die. State and county fairs held in the fall are another trigger that can stimulate one's perhaps already-frayed nervous system to whisper, “Oh no, winter's near.”
Winter can bring the obstacles of snow and ice that trap the elderly, the single, and the immobile in their homes or autos with no help -- some of them die. It signifies a number of changes that can become more difficult with age. The winter can also carry changes in natural light that have a real, physical effect upon certain individuals of any age. No demographic is titally spared.
Other circumstances that spell loss compound the effect that fewer hours of light can have on a human body disposed to SAD. At the end of the longest days of summer, public swimming pools close. One can no longer sit outside and read until 9:00 PM by daylight. The need for additional clothing is oppressive to some people. Having to close house windows more often can be claustrophobic. Some older folks can no longer see well enough in the dark, even by street lamp, to walk down to the corner after dinner for an ice cream as autumn daylight declines. Then the Dairy Hut closes for the season. It's too dark and cold to sit out on the front porch and everyone else is inside, anyway. Favorite summer TV series whose casts have become one's friends come to an end. College chums go back to out-of-town universities. Theme parks close. Things change and leave a sense of loss in their wake. Seniors with SAD may wonder, “Will I live to see the spring?”
Circumstances can cause a person with SAD to feel even sadder and this can feel like a descent into a maelstrom. People with SAD may feel melancholy, isolated, and abandoned or left out -- Clients have told me as much. Their symptoms can include moodiness, chronic fatigue, oversleeping, craving for carbohydrate comfort foods, lack of concentration, and other changes.
Sleep researchers and mental health professionals feel that SAD is brought on by changes in body chemistry linked to the reduction in daylight hours and nothing else seems to be at its root. This can cause a lead in hormones and brain chemicals, including the relevant neurotransmitter serotonin, which produces feelings of well being. Serotonin has been shown to reach its lowest levels in winter, perhaps most notably in the shortest winter days of the year. Some SAD clients feel better when bright sunlight shines on a winter day and this is telling evidence.
Serotonin is derived from tryptophan, found in fish, chicken, and the ubiquitous turkey. Milk products include milk, cheese, and cottage cheese. Bananas, eggs, nuts, avocados, and legumes (beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts) all contain tryptophan as well. At the same time, all these foods contain amino acids that stop tryptophan's trip to the brain, a frustrating circumstance. Some professionals feel that only 1% of food tryptophan arrives in the brain. In the US, tryptophan capsules have been sold, banned from sale, and sold again; whether they help alleviate SAD is debatable.
A high-note is the effect of complex carbohydrates in the diet. They can help the body to assimilate tryptophan more efficiently by stimulating the release of insulin. This may explain carbohydrate cravings and even some winter weight gain. The carbs stimulate insulin that helps clear away amino acids blocking tryptophan from the brain and insulin does not affect tryptophan at all. They were made for each other. Complex carbohydrates like whole grains are best.
Omega 3 fats also help serotonin function, which may then help alleviate depressive symptoms. Because the body cannot produce its own serotonin, a sufficient must be ingested. Omega 3 fatty acids are evident in oily fish like herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines tuna, and in products that include fish oil, flaxseed oil, and walnut oil. However, up to 60% of Americans may experience deficiencies of Omega-3 fatty acids and some simply have no detectable blood levels of them at all. Education and awareness can help change eating habits to include food sources of Omega 3 fats.
SAD treatment, aside from dietary changes, offers the options of light therapy (the most effective treatment overall), medications, behavioral therapies, and hormone replacement. The research literature shows that at least 50% of sufferers achieve remission of their symptoms via light therapy, most often using bright white fluorescent light in special light boxes (See the display to the right; even small art related light boxes may help).
SAD is not limited to fall and winter and can also occur during spring and summer seasons, producing a different set of symptoms: impaired appetite, agitation, anxiety, withdrawal, and sleeplessness. In other people, a type of mania occurs in these brighter seasons. It manifests as any of hyperactivity, excess enthusiasm, a highly elevated mood, rapid thoughts, and machine-gun speech . Such a person might seem to have taken a stimulant medication, but has not. Some researchers call this Reverse SAD.(Thankfully, they do not call it HAPPY).
If you are concerned about symptoms in yourself or loved ones that may be connected to SAD or other depression, contact your healthcare practitioner. The range of depression categories is treatable and treatments are most successful when undertaken early on. Be alert to signs of suicide and get help immediately if they appear. Depression is serious and real; the compounding factors are not foolish , even though others may label them “superficial.” Depression must not be taken lightly, but it need not be deadly.
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