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Combating Seasonal Depression

By: KBTX Staff Email
By: KBTX Staff Email

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Depression costs the American economy between $45 and $50 billion a year due to lost productivity and medical costs. Around the holidays, depression rises.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is when people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year, experience depressive symptoms in the winter.

Some symptoms include difficulty waking up in the morning, morning sickness, tendency to oversleep as well as to overeat. Most people experience some form of seasonal affective disorder.

KBTX Medical Contributor Dr. Alan Xenakis stops by to speak with Meredith Stancik about what seasonal affective disorder is and how to combat it.

Q: What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (Holiday Blues)?
A: Seasonal affective disorder is caused by a combination of low light levels coupled with slight differences in brain chemistry (Serotonin and Melatonin) in individuals.

Q: What role does Serotonin play?
A: Serotonin is a chemical that helps messages pass from one nerve cell to another. It helps different parts of your brain "talk" to each other.
When we have enough serotonin in our nervous system we feel calm, balanced and in control and a lack of it leads to depression and poor concentration. Levels of serotonin are generally lower in the population as a whole in winter and people with SAD suffer this lack more than most. Desire for sweet and starchy foods may be the brain's response to needing to boost low levels of serotonin. As the effects are only temporary this can lead to almost constant cravings.

Q: What role does Melatonin play?
A: Melatonin is the hormone which promotes sleep. If you don't have enough serotonin, melatonin can take over and make you feel sleepy or that you need an energy boost. Melatonin is only produced during the hours of darkness and therefore levels are lowest in spring and summer with their relatively shorter nights and highest in autumn and winter

Q: Do you have to have full-blown depression to experience the holiday blues?
A: No. The biggest problem for Holiday Blues is unmet expectation.

Q: What is unmet expectation?
A: You must decide for yourself what the holiday means for you and how you’re going to make it a good holiday. The first part of that means adjusting your expectations to match your current reality. For instance, if you have broken up with a loved one during the year, chances are you’re not going to heal that relationship during the holidays. Healing is a process that takes time.

Q: So what do we do?
A: Take a Stand! Stay in integrity and be authentic. Be yourself! Embrace grief over a loss and own it. Make it a part of you! You will actually achieve joy when you realize that you don’t have to live up to the lofty ideals portrayed by television specials and ads depicting an idealized vision of the season.

Q: Does Light Therapy work?
A: Yes, light therapy works.

Light levels
It is thought that we each have a minimum daily requirement for light according to our sensitivity to it and our brain chemistry. Light intensity is measured in lux:
-candlelight has an intensity of 1 lux
-light indoors is usually between 200 and 700 lux
-a sunny day outdoors at mid-day is about 100,000 lux

Those with a touch of the wintertime blues may want to try light therapy, 10,000-lux units. Spending approximately 30 minutes sitting under the lights first thing in the morning will do the trick.

Several companies sell portable home-use light units for $300 to $550, though the Food and Drug Administration hasn't yet approved the devices as safe and effective for treating SAD.

Safety concerns have focused on exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, which can ultimately cause sunburn, eye damage, and skin cancer.

Fortunately, recent studies have shown that UV rays are not an essential component of light therapy; units that emit almost no UV light are just as effective and should be the ones purchased. Lights that are listed as full spectrum will emit UV light compared to broad spectrum lights which omit the UV light.

Q: Does temperature affect good nutrition and exercise and therefore our mood?
A: Yes. The temperature in which you exercise affects the number of fat calories your body burns for energy. In winter months we tend to store more fat and make less muscle. This tends to make us feel discouraged and quit our health plans. Only 1 in 5 will keep their New Year’s Resolution by the end of February.

Q: How do you know if you are moving past Holiday Blues into clinical depression?
A: We all have bad days, and we’re all going to suffer with those, but if you have a period of more than two weeks where you have a depressed mood, crying spells, sleep problems, feelings of guilt and thoughts of death or suicide, you probably have a major depression and should seek medical care. You’re moving beyond the holiday blues.


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