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Seasonal Affective Disorder: 7 Signs You've Got the Blues

By Charles Hopkins Published 05/18/2006 | Health
The coming of spring brings with it a sense of renewal. Leaves and blossoms bud on once-bare trees, the sun returns from behind gray skies and the winter chill leaves the air. Suddenly your mood lifts, your energy returns and you have a new-found interest in life. Everything seems possible, as if a veil of gloom has been lifted.

What most people describe as the "winter blues" is actually clinically defined as SAD or "Seasonal Affective Disorder". SAD is a depressive mood disorder brought on by the seasonal variations in light. As the days become shorter, darker and gloomier with the onset of winter, symptoms of depression can manifest.

The Seasonal Affective Disorder Association or SADA estimates that approximately 500,000 people suffer from SAD every winter. December, January and February appear to be the most difficult months.

The lack of sunshine and increasingly gloomy days can sometimes cause a chemical imbalance in the hypothalamus of the brain, which may trigger SAD. Some research suggests that a lack of the brain chemical serotonin can cause symptoms of depression. Other research indicates a link to the sleep-related hormone melatonin.

Although the exact chemical changes taking place in the brain during a bout with SAD are still unclear, symptoms can be serious and should not be taken lightly.

Signs and symptoms of SAD can include:

1. Feelings of depression during the fall or winter months.

2. Changes in sleep patterns -- difficulty staying awake, oversleeping, or even early morning wakening or disturbed sleep.

3. Feelings of fatigue or difficulty participating in normal routines.

4. Irritability, tension and low tolerance for stress.

5. A disappearance of depressive symptoms during the spring and summer months.

6. Seasonal depressive episodes outnumber non-seasonal episodes.

7. Cravings for sweet and/or starchy foods, which can lead to weight gain.

There are ways to combat the effects of seasonal affective disorder. For severe SAD symptoms, treatment may include antidepressant medication.

But if you are inclined toward more natural remedies without the risk of possible side effects, phototherapy or bright light therapy has proven effective. So effective that, according to the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association, 85% of those diagnosed with SAD are helped by bright light therapy.

Common household lighting is not sufficiently bright to have a positive effect on SAD. Specially designed full-spectrum lighting with up to ten times the brightness of regular indoor light is recommended.

Of course, nothing beats the real thing. So during the winter, if the sun peaks out from behind gray clouds, go outdoors to catch as much of its healing light as possible. Add that to regular exercise and a healthy diet, and the winter blues may become easier to manage.