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David Baxter

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SAD SYMPTOMS: Facts about SAD from the Mood Disorders Clinic at UBC

Seasonal Affective Disorder is not bipolar disease nor just a case of the winter blues or cabin fever. It is a clinically diagnosed depression that some people experience in the dark days of fall and winter.

Symptoms include over-sleeping, extreme fatigue, increased appetite with carbohydrate cravings, overeating and weight gain. With more severe episodes, people may have suicidal thoughts.

Experts estimate that up to 120,000 people in B.C. may have difficulties in the winter due to significant clinical depression. Another 15 per cent of people have the "winter blues" or "winter blahs" -- winter symptoms similar to SAD, but not to the point of clinical depression.

Research has shown that many patients with SAD improve with exposure to bright artificial light, called light therapy, or phototherapy. As little as 30 minutes a day of sitting under a special light box results in significant improvement in 60 to 70 per cent of SAD patients.

Medications commonly prescribed for depression, including antidepressant medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are also effective for patients with SAD. Counselling may also help. People with milder symptoms of the "winter blahs" may be helped by simply spending more time outdoors and taking a daily noon-hour walk.

There are no known long-term harmful effects of light therapy, but some people may experience nausea, headaches, eye strain, or feeling "edgy" when they first start using the light box. These effects usually get better with time or reducing the light exposure.

Ten ways to beat the Winter Blahs

  1. Stop wearing sunglasses, except in extremely bright conditions, to allow more light into your eyes.
  2. Try to get daily exercise outdoors during daylight hours. If it is too cold outside, exercise indoors near a south-facing window.
  3. When it's not too cold outside, allow natural, unobstructed light inside through open doors and windows.
  4. Ask to sit near a window in restaurants or classrooms.
  5. Set up bright lights in your workplace.
  6. Stay on a regular schedule by waking up and going to sleep at the same time every day. SAD sufferers with regular schedules are less fatigued than those with irregular schedules.
  7. Use a high-intensity "light box" or "light book" for half an hour a day to increase your exposure to light.
  8. Put lights in your bedroom on a timer to switch on half an hour before you wake up.
  9. If you can, try to schedule a winter vacation in a tropical, sunny climate.
  10. If you suffer from severe depression in the winter, consult your physician.

Compiled by Karen Gram
 

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