Have you ever noticed the effect the changing seasons have on how you feel? Have you noticed that on gray overcast days your energy levels drop dramatically? Do you feel more depressed in the winter than in the summer? Do your pain levels increase on these same dreary sunless days? If you said yes to these questions you are not alone. You are not going crazy, you are not imagining it. It is real. It is called Seasonal Affective disorder or SAD for short.
What is SAD?
According to the Mayo Clinic SAD is a type of depression related to seasonal changes. The production of serotonin in the brain is directly related to the amount of exposure to bright sunlight. Decreases in serotonin production during the winter months can result in SAD for those at risk. It usually begins in the fall and continues until spring. Energy levels fall and people feel moody and depressed.
Symptoms can include: feeling depressed, feeling hopeless, low energy levels, sleep disturbances such as sleeping more, change in appetite – specifically craving foods high in carbohydrates, weight gain, feeling sluggish or agitated, difficulty concentrating, irritability and arms or legs feel heavy.
Causes include low serotonin levels in the brain which affects mood and an imbalance of melatonin which plays an important role in sleep patterns and mood. The decrease in daylight hours during the winter months increases the production of melatonin (our sleepy time hormone) and puts new meaning to “a long winter’s nap”. It’s a wonder anyone is willing to get out of bed!
Risk factors for developing SAD include:
- Female gender (although when males develop SAD their symptoms may be more severe)
- Age – young people are at greater risk
- Family history – More likely to develop SAD if a blood relative has SAD or other forms of depression
- Having clinical depression or diagnosis of Bi-polar disorder
- Living far from the equator – decreased sunlight during the winter
Treatment of SAD includes light therapy, medications and counseling to learn healthy coping skills to manage your symptoms and stress. A word of caution for people with bi-polar disorder, some treatments and medications for SAD can trigger a manic episode.
So what’s all the hype about sunlight and light therapy? I ask all my clients to sit outside for 15 minutes each day around noon and keep their eyes open so the sunlight can hit their retinas. (WARNING: Avoid looking directly into the sun to protect your sight). This has helped many of my clients to feel better and seems to increase their energy and ability to cope more effectively with their pain. Why? There is a photoreceptor in the eye which signals our brain’s master clock that regulates the production of serotonin. The key is 15 minutes every day. Fifteen minutes of outdoor sunlight without sunglasses at the same time everyday tells your body it is no longer night time and stimulates the production of serotonin, one of the Happy Hormones. This also helps with the production of Vitamin D.
Well, what if the sun does not come out from under the clouds for days on end? This is what happens in Yakima WA in the winter. We have days and weeks of no sunshine. So the alternative to direct sunlight is blue spectrum therapy lights. Why blue spectrum? Blue light waves are beneficial to us during the daylight hours. They increase our attention and reaction times, and they are especially beneficial in improving our mood by increasing our production of serotonin. But with everything there is a down side; blue light waves are disruptive at night. At night, the blue wave length interferes with the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates our circadian rhythms (our sleep/wake cycles) and our sleep. Exposure to blue light waves at night can lead to insomnia. Insomnia can increase mood disorders and depression. Thus a vicious cycle can begin. So the best advice is to limit exposure to computers, cell phones and other electronic devices at night before bedtime.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University found that individuals placed in brightly lit rooms reported less stress and took less pain medication than those who had been placed in dimly lit rooms. Whether someone has SAD or merely the winter funk, all can benefit from letting the sunshine inà increased sunlight = happier mood and perhaps less pain.
If you are a regular reader of the TPC blogs, you may be familiar with our Daily Living blogs. If not, get ready to learn about how it is possible to live a new way of life with pain. I invite all of you to interact with myself and others on the topic of Letting the Light Shine In by commenting on this article and joining the General Discussion on Pain found in our discussion forums on the TPC website. Signing up to participate in the discussion forums and other features of our online community is easy and free. Register Today!
Holzman, David C., What’s in a Color? The Unique Human Health Effects of Blue Light. Environ Health Perspect. Jan 2010; 118(1): A22–A27. doi: 1289/ehp.118-a22 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2831986/
Blue light has a dark side. http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side
Blue Light is the Light That Matters. http://psycheducation.org/treatment/bipolar-disorder-light-and-darkness/blue-light-is-the-light-that-matters/
Tayla Holman., Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD. Sunlight: A Natural Way to Fight Stress. http://www.healthline.com/health/depression/benefits-sunlight