Northwestern Medicine

When the Holidays Aren't So Happy: Treating, Preventing Seasonal Affective Disorder

Northwestern Memorial Hospital November 21, 2014

 Northwestern Medicine expert gives tips on how to cope with SAD

CHICAGO, IL –  The holiday season is often associated with family gatherings and cheerful spirits, but that’s not the case for everyone.

For some, the lack of sunlight during winter months can actually cause a subtype of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), where episodes of depression regularly occur during the same time every year. Symptoms start in late fall and often last until early spring. SAD may affect up to nine percent of Americans depending on latitude, although women may be at higher risk for developing SAD during their reproductive years. The exact cause of SAD is unknown, but experts believe changes in melatonin and serotonin levels or a disruption in the body’s internal clock could be to blame, said Northwestern Medicine psychiatrist Pedro Dago, MD.

“If you’re experiencing significant functional impairment associated with the changes in season, it’s time to get some help,” says Dago, who is also an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Understand that SAD is not just a case of the winter blues, but a serious problem for many people and that it can be treated. Talk to your doctor if you are suffering from symptoms so you, too, can enjoy this holiday season.”

Those who suffer from SAD have the following symptoms:

  • Feeling depressed, fatigued and lethargic 
  • Difficulty waking up in the morning and a tendency to sleep more 
  • Interference in work, school and personal relationships   
  • Increased appetite, leading to weight gain   
  • Loss of interest or enjoyment in activities 
  • Trouble concentrating  
Traditional treatments for SAD include psychotherapy, medication and therapeutic light therapy but Dago recommends first talking to your doctor to determine appropriate therapies and treatment. He also suggests the following tips:

  • Sleep well - Make sure you wake up at the same time every day, including weekends. Doing so will keep your body’s internal clock in sync.
  • Let the light in - Expose yourself to as much sunlight as possible by opening blinds at home and making sure that your work space has natural or bright light.
  • Control your cravings - Eat a balanced diet while limiting the amount of carbohydrates you are eating. Carbohydrates can provide a short-term energy boost but leave you feeling worse later in the day.
  • Embrace an exercise routine - Exercise is not only good for your physical health, but also helps relieve stress and anxiety that can increase the symptoms of SAD. Yoga and Pilates classes are both good ways to both relax and exercise.
  • Maintain your social behavior - Winter months usually mean you will spend more time indoors, but don’t forget to make time to get out of the house to visit with friends and family.
  • Learn to manage your stress - Take time to relax each day and try to manage your stress so it doesn’t lead to depression and overeating. Make it a point to stay connected to people who are important to you.
Learn more information about SAD or to make an appointment, call 312.926.0779.

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