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Your Health

Feeling SAD this time of year? You're not alone

Feeling SAD this time of year? You're not alone

If you're feeling sad as the days grow short and the nights grow long, you may actually be SAD—suffering from fall-onset Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. This is a type of depression that arrives with the shorter days and colder weather.

As many as 6 percent of the population is afflicted with fall-onset depression. It is more likely to affect women than men and becomes more prevalent the farther north you go. Thus, people in Illinois are more likely to suffer from SAD than those in Texas.

On a positive note, unlike so many afflictions, chances of developing SAD falls with age. The average age of onset is 27, so it is less likely that people who are older and have never before found themselves feeling blue as seasons change will start suffering now.

SAD symptoms

SAD symptoms can mirror those of general depression. People with SAD may feel grumpy, moody, anxious, irritable, or generally out of sorts. They may lose interest in things they normally enjoy. Some sufferers will eat more and crave comfort foods, especially carbohydrates such as bread and pasta. Some may sleep more and feel less energetic. Not surprisingly, overeating and oversleeping can lead to weight gain. Still others may lose weight because they tend to eat less when they are feeling down.

The difference between fall-onset SAD and non-seasonal depression is that symptoms end when spring arrives, only to return when temperatures drop and days again grow shorter. If you have symptoms of depression or SAD, tell your doctor.  If you feel like you might harm yourself or others, seek immediate medical attention or call 911.

Treating SAD

Doctors are likely to prescribe "light therapy" involving a commercially available "light box" made specifically to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder. The box uses an intense  light brighter than standard indoor light, but not nearly as bright as sunlight. (Note: A SAD light box is different from an ultraviolet sun light. Sun lamps or tanning lamps should never be used for light therapy. They can damage eyes and skin with prolonged exposure.)

The doctor will tell you how far to sit from the light, for how long, and how often.

Some medical experts believe artificial light causes a chemical change in the brain that resets the biological clock – called "circadian rhythm" – and lifts a person's mood. It can take two or more weeks for light therapy to work. If you stop therapy, SAD symptoms will probably return.

Always consult your doctor before beginning any type of therapy. In some cases, the high intensity lights can be harmful, particularly if your eyes or skin are sensitive to light.

In addition to or in place of light therapy, your doctor may suggest daily walks outdoors, turning on more lamps and other regular light fixtures, prescribe antidepressant medications, or suggest counseling to help cope with the symptoms of SAD.