Dec. 21 marks the beginning of winter. It is also the longest night (and shortest day) in the Northern Hemisphere.
This darkness has an effect on many people. It seems difficult to get out of bed; it's easier to do nothing except sit in front of a TV screen; and many people down in the dumps and gloomy.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can be a physically debilitating and emotionally debilitating condition, according to University of Michigan medical experts.
For some individuals, the seasonal decrease of sunlight and the long dark nights take a very real toll on their quality of life.
Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers experience low energy levels, sleep disruption, changes in appetite, apathy, ennui, and in extreme cases, suicidal tendencies.
These individuals tend to avoid social interaction and would "hibernate" if they were able to, experts say.
One patient described it as having "my own personal rain cloud over my head."
Women appear to be affected three to four times more often than men. This may indicate a hormonal component with the disorder.
Individuals who have a family history of Seasonal Affective Disorder may be predisposed to suffering from it, too.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is triggered when the production of mood-influencing brain chemicals decreases along with the amount of sunshine during the fall and winter months.
Reductions of two major neurochemicals - melatonin and serotonin - may bring on Seasonal Affective Disorder, experts say.
Melatonin is the body's timekeeper. It regulates sleep cycles and the body's internal clock.
When serotonin production fails, it may affect sleep, appetite, mood and concentration.
Think about it.
Everyone seems much more cheerful and pleasant on a bright sunny day.
Now, think about the impact of a gray, gloomy day. Doesn't everyone seem more negative?
During seasonal changes when days are shorter and nights grow longer, many people sleep longer.
Then, when sleep is increased, people say they have difficulty getting out of bed in the morning.
Then, victims of Seasonal Affective Disorder gain a few pounds - or more than a few pounds. And that makes them feel worse.
When Seasonal Affective Disorder affects individuals, many of them find that they crave carbohydrates and sweets, especially chocolate.
The negative impact of this disorder is not to be underestimated.
If left untreated, Seasonal Affective Disorder may lead to problems on the job, difficulty with relationships, and strains on marriage and relationships with children and other family members.
In the extreme, but rare case, suicide is the end result.
So what can Seasonal Affective Disorder suffers do?
For those who cannot afford the time or money for a trip to Florida, the Sun Belt or Rio de Janeiro, experts offer some helpful tips.
- Get out and walk or run on a bright sunny day.
- Make sure that you get up at the same time every day.
- Let the sun bathe the retina. You may find some relief from a sun box or a light box with fluorescent lights. These are commercial units available for from $200 to $500. These "grow lights for humans" compensate for the lack of sunlight. Exposure from 20 to 30 minutes a day appears to fool the brain into believing that it's June instead of December or January.
- Another electrical device is a dawn simulator, which can be set to gradually lighten a room within minutes or hours. Many of these devices can be found in natural food stores, or vitamin or health stores.
- Try stress management techniques and relaxation strategies, such as eating regularly and daily exercise.
- For individuals who find little or no relief, or those with severe symptoms, seek the help of a professional counselor. These professionals may prescribe drug therapy in the form of anti-depressants.
Seasonal Affective Disorder facts:
- Fourteen percent of the population may suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Six percent of the population may experience seriously debilitating symptoms.
- Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms include fatigue, excessive sleep, change in appetite, decreased interest in social life, apathy, and in extreme cases, suicidal thoughts and acts.
- Statistically, women comprise the greater numbers of Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers.
- Treatments include exercise, sunlight simulating electronic devices, relaxation and stress management techniques, professional counseling, drug therapy involving anti-depressants.