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Northerners Not Strangers to Seasonal Affective Disorder

Enjoying sunlight, social opportunities when available can help

DAYTON, Ohio (December 21, 2015) – Seasonal change doesn’t just mean shorter days for millions of Americans. It also means a dramatic shift in their mood and outlook on life.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), up to six percent of people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression. Another 10 to 20 percent may have a milder version of the disorder. SAD is a type of depression that begins as the hours of sunlight dwindle and tends to disappear as summer months approach.

The fact that SAD is temporary – lasting sometimes up to six months or half a year – should not diminish its effect on those who develop it or their need to seek treatment for it.

“We tend to see seasonal affective disorder in the higher latitudes of the hemisphere where we get a decrease in the amount of daylight we see as the seasons progress,” says Joseph Allen, MD, family physician with Family Medicine of Vandalia. “We begin to see individuals who get this dysphoric mood and symptoms consistent with a low-grade depression and it seems to be related to nothing more than the seasons.”

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), studies have shown that people living in northern states including Massachusetts, New York and even Ohio have much higher incidents of SAD than those living in sunny Florida. SAD may present itself differently from person to person, but there are many shared symptoms such as a general lack of interest in life, tendency to sleep longer, an increase or decrease in appetite, weight gain, and withdrawal from relationships. SAD can have an impact on a person’s productivity at work or school as well as their personal relationships.

Dr. Allen says SAD has the potential to affect anyone.

“Pretty much anyone is at risk for developing it,” he says. “We know that even children run the risk of developing it, but their symptoms are often a bit different from those of an adult. Children may exhibit it by acting out or having trouble with discipline as the seasons change.”

Although some children and teenagers get SAD, the average age it presents itself in an individual is 20 years old. The chances of getting SAD then begin to dip as a person ages. Females and those who have a history of depression or anxiety are considered at a higher risk for developing the disorder, according to the AAFP.

Unfortunately, the diagnosis of SAD isn’t always clear cut, and may at first be diagnosed and treated as depression, says Dr. Allen, who practices within Premier HealthNet.

“It is really about getting a good history from the patient,” he says. “It can be difficult to recognize it as seasonal affective disorder at first, but if you talk to the patient and they say, ‘You know, every year around this time of year I just get blah and then when the sun starts to come out more I feel better,’ then you know your answer.”

Dr. Allen offers these tips for individuals who struggle with or are at-risk for SAD:

Seek sunlight – The days may be shorter, but it doesn’t mean the sun is completely gone. Look for ways to expose yourself to natural sunlight. Bundle up and take a walk during the morning. Be conscientious of your need for sunlight during the day especially if your work environment offers few windows. Use lunch breaks to get outdoors or to sit by a window.

Take care of yourself – A rich diet and exercise program can be a challenge to begin or maintain throughout the winter months, but both play a vital role in how you feel both physically and emotionally. Sunlight provides our bodies with vitamin D. It may be beneficial to add to your diet foods that are rich in vitamin D such as kale, spinach and orange juice.

Have hope – Just because you have SAD doesn’t mean it will be a disorder that you struggle with your entire life. Some individuals may experience it once in their life and others may see it appear sporadically throughout their life. Regardless, talk to your doctor if symptoms begin to interfere with your life. Your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant or light therapy. Light therapy is a way to treat SAD by exposing someone to artificial light for a certain period of time.

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