Light Up Your Life: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder Information and Tips

Ah yes, the you can just now begin to feel the cold bite in the air during the mornings and evenings. Soon the leaves will turn all sorts of brilliant colors. The autumn season is on it's way. I love the fall. It's my favorite season of the year.

Unfortunately, for many who suffer from a disorder called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the dread of the upcoming change in seasons is growing.

I am writing this late summer article for those of you who struggle with seasonal depression, or have wondered if you might. I am writing now, before the onset of the fall season, because I want for you to be proactive before this problem gains a foothold in your life.

The research is unclear about the average percentage of the population that suffers from seasonal affective disorder. There has been substantial studies of those with depression, bipolar disorder and atypical depression, which show that 60% or more with these particular diagnoses have Seasonal Affective disorder in the fall and winter seasons.

We've all heard the term "biological clock." We are now somewhat sure of exactly where this resides in the brain. One responsibility of our biological clock is to measure the amount of light that comes through our retinas. Then our nervous system communicates this information to the Pineal Gland. The Pineal Gland is responsible for producing Melatonin. The more light that comes through, the less Melatonin that is produced. In the fall and winter, when daylight hours are much fewer, the Pineal Gland produces much more Melatonin.

Ironically, Melatonin is a hormone known to have many positive benefits for us. It is prescribed for insomnia, helps with jet lag, improves immune function and is an antioxidant. The bad news for those of you who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder ( SAD ) is that it seems Melatonin is the culprit.

The symptoms for Seasonal Affective Disorder include, but are not limited to the following list:

  1. Excessive eating

  2. Weight gain

  3. Depression

  4. Excessive sleeping

  5. Decreased physical activity; much more sedentary

  6. Increased levels of fatigue

  7. Unclear or sluggish ability to think

  8. Feeling slowed down physically and mentally

  9. Previous history of elevated depression in fall/winter

  10. Strong cravings for sweets and starchy foods

Now, if some of this sounds familiar to you, and you're sure you do not struggle with seasonal depression it's because we all slow down some in the winter. We're biologically built to go into a sort of natural hibernation mode. The difference is when the symptoms listed above significantly impair several of your important life areas, such as family, social and work productivity in such a way that you are much less functional.  Then, it looks more like Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Take a proactive stance now before Seasonal Affective Disorder takes over. We're all familiar with "Prevention is the best medicine!" Have a fall and winter plan. Please, do it now while you are better able to put together a thoughtful plan of action. Here are some starters:

  1. Plan at least three social activities each month

  2. Expose yourself to as much bright light as possible

  3. Stay or become physically active through exercise

  4. Have good support systems in place

  5. Buy an indoor light box which gives 10,000 Lux natural
    full spectrum lighting

  6. Start a natural or prescribed antidepressant four weeks
    prior to the beginning of mid-fall and terminate use four
    weeks following the end of winter. Talk to your family
    doctor about this.


For those of you who already have a depression diagnosis of one kind or another, you already know you dip into Seasonal Affective Disorder in the fall and winter, this proactive approach is absolutely vital for you. And, I have some additional ideas for how to prevent or treat Seasonal Affective Disorder.

  1. Adjust the dosages of your antidepressants at the
    beginning and end of the fall/winter seasons

  2. Add 3 new stress management skills to your skill base

  3. Exercise!

  4. You should own and use a light box, even in the 
    summer months.

  5. Monitor depression using a simple daily mood chart scale of 1-10, with 10 being severe depression. Commit to a "planned ahead" action you will definitely take (like seeing your family doctor) if your rating is over 6,
    three or more days in one week.

  6. Make a list of past symptoms - a trigger list if you 
    will. And share it with one other person.


A light box should be used strategically for Seasonal Affective Disorder, and there are a few concerns about using light boxes for seasonal affective disorder.

Light boxes work similar to the description above. If more light goes through the retinas, on to the biological clock, and through the nervous system to the Pineal Gland, the production of Melatonin will slow. The result will be elevated mood and lessen the chance you will suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

If you have any type of eye problems involving the retina you must consult your eye specialist first, before using a light box for Seasonal Affective Disorder. These types of eye problems include macular degeneration, retinitis, pigmentosa and diabetic retinopathy.  These conditions make the treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder more challenging, but not impossible.  Please consult your physician in considering other alternatives.

For the elimination of Seasonal Affective Disorder, the minimum amount of time to use a light box for a positive effect is 30-60 minutes. Generally the first positive response reported from sufferers of seasonal affective disorder is increased energy levels.

If you oversleep and struggle with getting up in the morning the best time to use your light box is in the morning. And, I know you don't want to hear this, but the best way to use the light box is to get up 30 minutes early and use it immediately for 30 minutes.

If you tend to nod off early in the evening, only take wake up too early in the morning and cannot get back to sleep the best time to use the light box would be in the evening for Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Be careful if your diagnosis is Bipolar Disorder. You can still use a light box for Seasonal Affective Disorder, and probably should, but there is some risk that you could go into a hypomanic or manic phase. The best time for Bipolar folks to use the light box is in the mid-afternoon. It is also strongly suggested that you stay on, or use a mood stabilizer medication in combination with the light box.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a very real and debilitating disorder. I suspect it will show up in a future edition of the diagnostic guide for the psychotherapy profession. You can make a remarkable difference in the quality of your fall and winter seasons by taking action now to prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder. Please help yourself out, you deserve to feel good year 'round!

To your best autumn and winter season ever!

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