5 Things You Should Know About SAD

Winter is prime time for seasonal affective disorder. Here’s what you need to know

By Ernst Lamothe Jr.

Tarun Kumar, attending psychiatrist in the comprehensive psychiatry emergency program at St. Joseph Hospital in Syracuse.
Tarun Kumar, attending psychiatrist in the comprehensive psychiatry emergency program at St. Joseph Hospital in Syracuse.

It often doesn’t get the attention it deserves, but seasonal affective disorder victims know the truth. They understand the condition is real and can alter their mood and behavior for months at a time. Called SAD, it is a seasonal mood disorder related to reduction of light, which happens during the winter months. It can affect between 4 to 6 percent of Americans, according to the American Association of Family Physicians. Another 10 to 20 percent has been diagnosed with a mild version of the condition.

Places that rain for weeks at a time or people who live in cloudy cities such as Syracuse and other parts of Central New York are often most vulnerable.

SAD doesn’t always fall under the same umbrella symptoms as general mental health depression but can look very similar.

“A lot of people don’t feel comfortable talking about how they feel to others,” said Tarun Kumar, who works as an attending psychiatrist in the comprehensive psychiatry emergency program at St. Joseph Hospital in Syracuse.

“Sometimes it is a source of shame or sometimes they just don’t believe others will understand so they keep it to themselves which can also worsen the problem. But seasonal affective disorder is a prevalent condition that does affect people,” said Kumar, who is certified by the American Board of Psychiatry & Neurology in adult psychiatry, child/adolescent psychiatry, and forensic psychiatry.

Here are five facts you need to know about SAD.

1. Buying a light therapy box should be your first solution.

The most effective way to battle through SAD and depression is light therapy. The body needs light and many times during the winter cloudy and cold days produce an inability for that to occur. Kumar recommends purchasing an artificial light therapy lamp.

“I tell any of my patients that they should purchase it and use it early in the day. Usually the depressed feelings can start as soon as you wake up,” said Kumar. “I suggest they use it for 30 minutes each day and can increase it if that is not working for them.”

The average living room has 100 lux as a unit of light flow, while a sunny day measures between 20,000 to 100,000 lux. The average light therapy box that someone purchases is about 10,000 lux, which is akin to being outside on a cloudy day.

2. It is a chemical issue

SAD is triggered because of lack of daylight — it’s not related to low temperatures. A large reason why experts believe some people suffer from it is because the lack of sunlight increases the melatonin production in the body. Melatonin helps regulate sleep and can cause depression.

“There is a science to why some people suffer more than others. This issue causes people to get into a depressive state and it can be difficult for seasonal affective disorder patients to concentrate or have any energy,” said Kumar. “That lethargic state is part of the chemical imbalance they are fighting through.”

3. Stress is a factor

Stress is often the underlying factor in many health condition and SAD is no different. If a person has a history of seasonal affective disorder, they sometimes struggle in compartmentalizing or dealing generally with stress. The lack of sun and increasing dark days makes it more challenging for them to regularly do their jobs because they are more tired. Those who deal with SAD often have a hard time sleeping regularly.

“That is one of the reasons we recommend people receive some kind of counseling, therapy or simply talk with others about their condition because they have to speak about what is affecting them,” said Kumar.

4. Antidepressants work

There are prescription medications that can help with serotonin levels in the brain. The biggest reason why that is an asset is because when we don’t produce enough serotonin, we can become depressed. Antidepressants — such as Prozac and Zoloft — can often raise serotonin levels. It can be a successful temporary use but physicians do not recommend it long term.

“Antidepressants have been shown to definitely help people who have moderate to severe depression,” said Kumar.

5. Watch for the effects of light therapy

Some say that light therapy has no side effects, but others disagree. It simply depends on the person, according to Kumar. Some people experience mild side effects, such as headaches, eye strain or nausea. However, some light therapy users say that the side effects are temporary and subside with time or reduced light exposure. Most scientists agree that there are no long-term side effects, but remember to consult your physician before any treatment decisions are made.

“There are some patients that have suffered side effects from looking into the light box. It could be problematic with those who have eye problems and can cause headaches for others,” said Kumar. “You have to make sure that the light therapy isn’t causing disruptive aspects to your life that could be worsening another problem.”