At this time of year, many of my clients complain about the days getting shorter. Understandably so. It’s not just that the summer has ended and the longer, lazier days are behind us. With this particular season change, those who suffer from mild to moderate mood disorders (especially depressive and bipolar) can all of a sudden find themselves feeling irritable and blue due to brain chemistry changes brought on by inadequate bright light. And if you struggle with emotional eating, the lowered brain chemicals can send you right to the refrigerator.
There is actually a name for this condition: Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. It’s a type of depression that tends to occur and recur as the days grow shorter in the fall and winter. Affected people seem to react adversely to the decreasing amounts of sunlight and the colder temperatures as the fall and winter progress. The incidence of this disorder increases in people living farther away from the equator. It’s sometimes called winter depression or winter blues. The symptoms generally begin in the fall as the days get shorter and can last until Spring.
SAD is about four times more common in women than men. And while people of all ages can develop the disorder, the average age of people when they first develop it is 23 years old. In the United States, about 5% of adults have the disorder and up to 20% have some symptoms but not sufficient enough to warrant the diagnosis.
The symptoms of SAD include:
- crying spells
- overeating, especially of carbohydrates, and associated weight gain
- difficulty concentrating
- poor sleep
- decreased activity level
- body aches and
- lowered libido
While most people suffer from SAD in the fall and winter, there are a smaller percentage of people who suffer from this condition during the summer, in addition to or instead of the fall or winter. For those suffering during the summer months, the most common symptoms are insomnia, poor appetite and weight loss, in addition to crying spells, irritability and difficulty concentrating.
While researchers don’t quite understand the exact mechanisms that cause SAD, the disorder seems to develop from inadequate bright light during the winter months. Bright light appears to effect the levels of brain chemicals; even more so in sensitive individuals. Other factors, like Vitamin D levels in the blood, have also been associated with higher occurrences of SAD and other depressive disorders.
So, if you are one of the unfortunate 5-20% who are affected by the shorter, darker days, there are a few things you can do to improve the condition:
- Try to spend 15-30 minutes out in bright sun during the shorter days of fall and winter. Exposure to bright light is the treatment as well as the key to prevention of SAD.
- If there isn’t sufficient daylight or your lifestyle prevents getting out in daylight, light treatment, called phototherapy, is commercially available in the form of light boxes. You can use the light box for approximately 30 minutes daily, once in the morning and once in the evening.
- Daily supplements of serotonin enhancing amino acids can be helpful. L-Tryptophan, 5-Hydroxy-Tryptophan and St. John’s Wort have been used to help SAD sufferers. Check with your health care provider before adding supplements if you are already taking antidepressant medications.
- Antidepressant medications, especially those from the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor family (SSRIs) have been found to be effective treatment for SAD. Examples of SSRIs include Prozac, Zoloft and Lexapro.
- Intake of starchy wholesome (not processed) plant carbohydrates, like winter squashes, sweet potatoes , yams and legumes help the utilization of the serotonin enhancing amino acids.
- Increase your social support, if possible, during your most challenging times of the year. Even zoom groups can help.
- Reduce stress during your most vulnerable times. When your SAD is surfacing, this isn’t the time to take on additional voluntary projects like home remodeling.
- Take an extended vacation, if safe and possible, to a location characterized by bright light. Think tropical islands.
- Seek the assistance of a supportive psychotherapist who can help you learn to better cope with SAD and any other mood disturbances.
Fortunately, we have many ways to reduce or resolve this troubling condition. It may take a bit of time and research to get a handle on your SAD, but it will be well worth it and it just might take a bite out of your emotional eating.
Posted by Julie M Simon, MA, MBA, MFT, psychotherapist and life coach, certified personal trainer, founder and director of The 12 Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and author of The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual and When Food Is Comfort. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see addressed in this blog, go to https://overeatingrecovery.com.
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