Dear Savvy Senior,
What can you tell me about seasonal affective disorder? I’ve always disliked winter, but since I retired and am home a lot more, the gray, cold winter months make me feel really blue.
— Sad Sam
If you get depressed in the winter but feel better in spring and summer, you may indeed have seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a wintertime depression that affects roughly 5% of Americans.
In most cases, SAD is related to the loss of sunlight in the winter months. Reduced sunlight can upset natural sleep-wake cycles and other circadian rhythms that can affect the body. It can also cause a drop in the brain chemical serotonin, which affects mood, and can increase the levels of the hormone melatonin, which can make you feel more tired and lethargic.
If you think you may have SAD, a trip to your doctor’s office is the best way to diagnose it or you can take a SAD “self-assessment” test at the Center for Environmental Therapeutics website at CET.org/assessments. If you find that you have SAD, here are several treatment options and remedies that can help.
Light therapy: The most effective treatment for SAD is sitting in front of a specialized light therapy box for 20 to 30 minutes a day, within the first hour of waking up in the morning. Light therapy mimics outdoor light to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood.
While you can buy a light box without a prescription, it’s best to use it under the guidance of a health care provider and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines. Most health insurance plans do not cover the cost.
The best light therapy lamps provide 10,000 lux of illumination, many times stronger than typical indoor light, and have a diffuser screen that filters out ultraviolet rays and projects downward toward the eyes.
Some top-rated light therapy products include the Carex Day-Light Classic Plus Bright Lamp ($145); Northern Light Technology Boxelite-OS ($205); and the budget friendly Verilux HappyLight Luxe ($70).
Cognitive behavioral therapy: Even though SAD is considered to be a biological problem, identifying and changing thought and behavior patterns can help alleviate symptoms, too. To help you with this, choose a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy and who has experience in treating SAD. To locate someone in your area, Psychology Today offers a search tool at PsychologyToday.com/us/therapists/cognitive-behavioral-cbt.
Antidepressants: Some people with SAD benefit from antidepressant treatments, too. Some proven medications to ask your doctor about are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and the extended-release antidepressant bupropion.
But keep in mind that it may take several weeks to notice full benefits from an antidepressant. In addition, you may have to try different medications before you find one that works well for you and has the fewest side effects.
Lifestyle remedies: Some other things you can do to help alleviate your SAD symptoms include making your environment sunnier and brighter. So, open up your blinds, sit closer to bright windows and get outside as much as you can. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help, especially if you spend some time outside within two hours of getting up in the morning.
Moderate exercise such as walking, swimming, yoga and even tai chi can also help alleviate SAD symptoms, as can social activities.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.