Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) typically sets in from late September to mid-October, grows worse in the dark months of November through January, and continues until about April. As the days grow shorter and the weather colder, you find yourself suffering from what appears to be a textbook case of clinical depression. You may feel unable to keep up at work, socialize with friends, groom and take care of yourself, maintain Your household, or even venture out of the house. Once the days start growing longer and the Sun comes out, you’re back to your normal, evenkeeled self-until next fall.
SAD is a particular type of depression that affects 2 to 10 percent of the population. Most sufferers live far north or far south of the equator. Much research has been done on the role that certain brain chemicals-called neurotransmitters-play in depression. These chemicals, which help relay electrical signals between brain cells, are believed to regulate mood. Studies have shown that a large number of depressed people exhibit reduced levels of norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine three such chemicals.
While heredity is considered a primary risk factor, the exact cause of SAD is still unknown. Experts suspect that a lack of bright light may inhibit the brain’s production of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin.
Signs and Symptoms
The following signs and symptoms occur annually from late fall to early spring:
- Sense of emotional numbness, despair, helplessness, hopelessness, and/or gloom
- Feelings of low self-worth
- Desire to be alone; withdrawal from others
- Worry and episodes of anxiety
- Belief that life is meaningless
- Decreased energy level
- Change in demeanor, either becoming more agitated or, more commonly, slowing down and dragging
- lack of interest in once-pleasurable activities
- Abnormal sleeping patterns (nighttime insomnia, waking in the early morning, sleeping during the daytime)
- Crying for seemingly trivial reasons
- Poor appetite and weight loss or increased appetite and weight gain
- lack of interest in appearance and grooming
- Diminished concentration and decision making ability
- Inappropriate guilt
- Monotone speech
- Suicidal thoughts and/or behavior
Conventional Medical Treatment
If you experience four or more of the preceding symptoms yearly during the period between late fall and early spring, you may have SAD. A physician may give you a physical exam to rule out any physical ailments, then refer you to a mental health expert.
Treatment consists of exposure to high levels of light. Ten to 30 minutes of outdoor time, such as a long walk, is recommended every day during the winter months-even during snowy and rainy weather. In addition, your doctor may recommend that you sit in a room in your home with a light box (available from a medical supply store), which emits extremely bright light, for 15 minutes or more each day. You do not have to look at the light. In some instances, an antidepressant may be prescribed to help you get through the late fall, winter, and early spring. The most commonly prescribed antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxeline (Prozac) or sertraline (Zoloft). These medications act by regulating the brain’s neurotransmitters, thus addressing the physiological causes of depression.
Bodywork and Somatic Practices
Massage, CranioSacral Therapy, Trager, Therapeutic Touch, Reiki, Oriental bodywork, polarity therapy, reflexology, Feldenkrais, and Aston-Patterning can all help this condition.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Acupuncture SAD may be treated with a combination of modalities, including acupuncture, which can help alleviate anxiety and improve the patient’s mood. Acupuncture also may be effective at reducing lethargy and combating other SAD-related symptoms, such as overeating, loss of libido, and antisocial behavior.
Acupressure A therapist may concentrate on Large Intestine, Lung, Conception Vessel, Stomach, Kidney, Governing Vessel, and Gallbladder to relieve fatigue.
If a decreased sex drive is associated with the condition, the practitioner will work additional points along the gallbladder, conception vessel, bladder, kidney and governing vessel meridians.
Chinese Herbal Therapy Depression may be treated with polygala, a decreased sex drive may be boosted with Tibetan saffron, and anxiety may be reduced with eagle wood. In addition, the herbalist may include joint fir (for overeating), licorice (for irritability), and wild Chinese jujube (for fatigue) in the herbal preparation, depending upon the symptoms.
The Chinese patent formula known as Ginseng and Dang Gui Ten Combination also may be prescribed to treat SAD. And, because Chinese medicine views sadness and anxiety as having a detrimental effect on the lungs and large intestine herbs may be given to fortify these organs as well: