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Healthcare Quarterly
Shortage of light may lead to ‘feeling the blues’

The kids are back in school, vacation season is over, and retailers are already strutting reminders that the holiday madness is coming as fast as the Northwest showers this time of year. If you’re starting to feel less energy, get more tired and irritable and even seem hungrier than usual, suddenly developing a carving for carbs, you may think it’s all just a sign of the seasons.

But those blues may be an indication of something else — you may be one of an estimated one in six Americans suffering from a disorder with the appropriate acronym of SAD, Seasonally Affective Disorder (another 10 percent to 20 percent of people are believed to have a milder form).

Increased cravings for starchy or sweet foods, the need to sleep longer, drop in energy level, a “leaden” feeling in arms or legs, difficulty concentrating and avoidance of social contact are some of the SAD symptoms.

This mood disorder is triggered by the shortened daylight in the fall but some people are also affected in the spring, when the days become longer. People who are sensitive to circadian rhythms disruptions may be especially affected (the circadian rhythm change is what also can make for a more difficult adjustment to the daylight savings time when the body’s internal clock is changed).

Dr. Kathryn Rahn, consultation liaison psychiatrist for Harrison Medical Center, says light therapy is generally the best for treating SAD and some people find it effective to use special lights — she recommends talking to your physician about what type of light to use and the doses. But what some people don’t realize, she says, is that they would get a higher intensity of light outside, even on an overcast day — as much as seven times more intensity — than from a special bulb.

“You can increase the ambient light at home and go for walks, that doesn’t cost any money,” she says. “I tell people that’s why GORE-TEX was invented, so SAD people can go outside and get some light.”

Other treatments could include cognitive therapy and medication. The most important thing about Seasonally Affective Disorder is to not ignore the symptoms, especially if they affect your everyday life negatively. “Assess how much your mood is affecting your life and if you recognize it’s affecting it, seek help,” Rahn says.

SAD symptoms could be an indication of other issues, including depression.

Rahn says there is no harm in trying intervention like light therapy on your own but if that doesn’t work or the symptoms are severe, you shouldn’t be reluctant to talk to your physician. “The only harm is in neglecting yourself” by not seeking help, she says.

For more information, go to www.nmha.org/go/sad.

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