YOU: Is SAD a Real Thing?
ME: Yes, for sure. Many people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as Winter Depression or Winter Blues and abbreviated as SAD.
YOU: What is SAD?
ME: For some people SAD is just mild winter blues, for others it can be incapacitating depression. Some people just retreat to the couch and turn on Netflix. Others may get so bad they can't function. Some turn to alcohol and drugs.
YOU: Why do people experience SAD?
ME: The basic problem is a deficiency of light.
"Light is as essential for humans and fundamental for life and of equal importance as water and air ". Hollwich & Dieckhus, 1980
ME: But looking at SAD as light deficiency really begs the question. Why are people light deficient? And the answer to that is: people don't go outdoors enough. Almost always, the light is brighter outdoors than inside. On a summer day, you will get 10,000 foot candles of light outdoors. In doors at your home or office, you might get 50 to 200 foot candles. See the huge difference? If you stay indoors all day, whether it is winter or summer, you won't get much light exposure.
YOU: But winters are so dark here in the Northwest. What good would it do to go out this time of year?
ME: Even on an overcast winter day, you will probably get 5-10 times as much light outside as indoors. And every day isn't overcast. On a clear winter day, you will probably get at least 5,000 foot candles, which is at least 25 times as much light as you will be getting indoors. A typical office will be 200 foot candles. Your living room may be 50 foot candles. Clearly, going out side is going to expose you to much more light. Light really is essential, and humans really do need light, and staying indoors with only 200 foot candles all day, just is not going to keep you healthy.
YOU: I think my wife may have SAD. She doesn't really want to do much.
ME: At least 1 out of 20 people experience SAD. Of those, 4 out of 5 are female. So women are at greater risk for wintertime depression, but it can hit men too.
YOU: How do I know if she has SAD?
ME: Symptoms of SAD can include:
a persistent low mood
a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
craving carbohydrates and gaining weight
ME: If there is any question, she should probably see her doctor and get checked out.
YOU: He will just give her pills and we really don't want to turn to pills to fix everything. What else can we do? What can we do on our own?
ME: There are a number of options. One of the most popular things is to get a SAD light. This is a light that puts out as much as 900 foot candles of light. It sits on your desk, and you turn it on, sitting about 1-2 feet in front of it, for 30-60 minutes per day. They have lots of studies showing that SAD lights decrease the symptoms of SAD.
YOU: What do they cost?
ME: Between $50 to $150.
YOU: Is that what you recommend?
ME: Maybe for Plan B. But not for Plan A. Think about what we just discussed about outdoor light levels. What do you think will do the most good? A half hour in front of a 900 foot candle SAD light, or a half hour outside with 5,000 foot candles?
YOU: So my wife needs to get outdoors? And she just stands around and shivers? Waiting to feel better?
ME: She could stand around, but how about if she goes for a walk during the half hour?
YOU: Oh I see where you're going! Back on the exercise lecture.
ME: Well of course. Exercise, independent of light exposure is proven to reduce and cure depression. The SAD light has never been demonstrated to cure any depression, just to reduce symptoms. So think about it: 30 minutes sitting in front of a SAD light, twiddling your thumbs, or 30 minutes with outdoor light exposure, with the added benefit of exercise. What do you think the comparative effectiveness would be?
YOU: Well obviously, the outdoor light and walking will be the best.
ME: Try to time the walk from midmorning through early afternoon.
YOU: Even when it is raining cats and dogs? Or in the middle of a blizzard?
ME: Well you probably still need the exercise, but if you just aren't able to go out, having a SAD light to use on those days might be helpful. They're not that expensive, so get one for your Plan B. But stick with
Plan A on most days.
YOU: Anything else that will help?
ME: A few other things. Go to this link to review our discussion of Omega 3s. Omegas are an effective antidepressant and people with SAD will see the difference. Go here to review the correct dose of Omega 3s. Go here for a discussion about getting adequate sunlight in the summer. People that get lots of sun in the summer seem to be somewhat resistant to SAD. The summer sun exposure seems to carry over a little.
YOU: It's interesting the way you connect everything together.
ME: Well everything really is connected, so I should mention diet. We've discussed how added dietary sugar contributes to poor health, including depression. Go here to review that discussion.
YOU: Anything else?
ME: Well you should do the things we know will reset your circadian rhythm, such as.
Turn all your lights on bright, first thing in the morning.
Open your curtains and let the daylight in.
Make your house or office as bright as possible during the day.
At around 5 or 6 pm or around dinner time, do the opposite. Start reducing your lighting. Turn off bright overhead lights, and use small lamps.
Turn off all screens at least an hour before bedtime.
All of these things will help restore your natural day/night cycle.
YOU: Thanks for the info.
ME: You're welcome! And I have summarized the entire plan below.
SAD Action Plan
1) Bright lights on all day, and curtains open
2) Half hour mid-day walk, every day
3) Quit the sugar
4) Supplement Omega 3s
5) Dim lights all evening
6) Screens off an hour before bedtime
7) SAD Light as backup plan if unable to get outside
If your depression is too out of control, get help NOW!
A) Walk into (or call) any Hospital Emergency Room and get help.
B) Your Family Doctor or Primary Care Provider can help.
C) Google Depression Hotline and you will find a selection of suicide and depression helplines, staffed 24/7, some run by government agencies and some by private groups. Pick one and call.