With another summer of beach vacations and trips to Kennywood in our rearview mirror, sun worshippers joke of the "depression" this time of year brings. While this is meant in jest for many, up to 10% of Americans have a diagnosable depression whose trigger is the unavoidable flip of a calendar.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD, for short) is the name of this wintertime menace.
As the earth tilts away from the sun – what we commonly call fall and winter – our days shorten. Our bodies are able to sense this decrease in light due to receptors on the top of our heads, in our eyes and on the back of our knees. (Yes, the back of our knees.) This decrease in light can throw off our circadian rhythm (or sleep-wake cycle) and the 24-hour cycle our body is used to, leading to changes in mood, energy, appetite and more.
Apparently, it's like jet lag.
"When people have jet lag it's because their bodies have been operating at a certain circadian rhythm,” said Dr. Michael Franzen, chief psychologist at the West Penn Allegheny Health System with 30 years in practice. “They suddenly go to a different area, the sun is entering receptor areas at a different time than they used to, and they're out of sorts with their circadian rhythm. Those are the same receptors that are probably involved in SAD,"
Dr. Franzen – who, more specifically, is a neurophysiologist and studies the intersection of the psychological with the physiological – explains that the production of chemicals in our bodies such as melatonin and perhaps serotonin and some hormones are dependent upon these light receptors. Ultimately, a change in light means a change in the amount of these chemicals available to our bodies.
Okay, circadian-schmircadian, but what does SAD feel like?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is really just a variant of Major Depressive Disorder and is characterized by sluggishness, loss of interest, lower energy/tiredness, withdrawal from social activities, weight gain (because of carbohydrate cravings), loss of interest in sex, irritability and hopelessness – all symptoms seen in classic depression.
Another similarity between the two disorders: They are both more likely to affect women.
According to Dr. Franzen, "The main thing is, for people who may think they have it, does this tend to increase during the time that the days are shortening – especially mid-to-late fall with peak levels in the dead of winter – and tend to subside as the days get longer?’
“If they have those symptoms, whether they're related to the seasons or not, they should still seek help."
Help in this case isn't a medication you can't pronounce with side-effects you can't tolerate. It's light.
Since a decrease in the shiny rays – as sensed by those eye, head and knee receptors – is the culprit, increasing one's exposure to light is one of the solutions. And, no, you don't have to shine it on the back of your knees.
Sitting two feet in front of a specially made lamp that emits ultraviolet light – called a "light box" – for 20-60 minutes either at the beginning or end of the day is successful treatment for 40% of those suffering from SAD. For the other 60%, a mixture of therapies ranging from light box therapy, to talk therapy to the use of anti-depressants are used to beat the "winter blues".
But that may change.
"Where the research is going now is to try to find the underlying neuro-chemical basis for [SAD] in order to make pharmacological treatment more precise and more effective," said Dr. Franzen.
What might change is the definition of "pharmacological.” As more is discovered about the genetics and naturally-occurring chemicals involved in SAD, don't be surprised if future treatments include vitamins or hormonal supplements.
Bottom line? Be aware. If you recognize these symptoms in yourself or fellow man, remember the importance of seeking treatment from a trained professional.
Also, on a far-less-serious note, be aware that back-of-the-knee light receptor discussions at parties will absolutely label you "quirky.”