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SAD is very real, and very common

The days are shorter, the weather is colder and snow seems to always be on its way. It’s the time of year when many people leave for work before the sun rises and return home after it sets, leaving little time for activities in the daylight. During this time of year, the winter blues set it.

This seasonal depression is called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

"SAD is a form of depression that temporarily affects people during the winter months but tends to go away during the spring and summer months as the days begin to lengthen again," says Dr. Francis J. Braconaro, an internal medicine doctor at Geisinger’s Mahanoy City clinic.

Most people suffering from SAD feel moody or grumpy, lose motivation for activities they would normally enjoy doing, and may sleep more but still feel tired. They also crave more carbohydrates — think comfort foods like macaroni and cheese, other pastas and bread. In addition, people who already are suffering from depression may experience a marked increase in their symptoms.

If you’ve experienced feelings of sadness and depression during the winter over the past two years, you may have SAD. Women, people who live further from the equator where the days are shorter, and those between the ages of 15 and 55 are more likely than others to get SAD. Communities north of the arctic circle often have communication systems built in to check on the well-being of citizens during the dark months; scientific communities stationed in regions exposed to darkness require their members to periodically expose themselves to artificial lighting.

"Doctors and researchers aren’t exactly sure what causes SAD, but many suspect it’s got something to do with the lack of sunlight we face when the days are shorter," explains Dr. Braconaro. Before the advent of artificial lighting, people in polar regions were noted to mature slower than people in the tropics.

If you’re feeling blue, here are five ways you can treat SAD to feel more like yourself.

  1. Go outside. It may be cold outside, but getting out of your house or office can help you shake the blues. Try taking a walk during your lunch hour or spending time outside on the weekends to expose your body to more natural light.

  2. Exercise. Elevating your heart rate with a brisk walk, bike, run, swim or other workout can help you shake any feelings of moodiness. When you exercise, your brain releases chemicals called endorphins that can boost your mood.

  3. Consider trying light therapy. During the winter months, using a light therapy box can provide some relief from the symptoms of SAD. A light therapy box uses a special fluorescent light bulb that mimics daylight. "Light therapy should be done within an hour of waking up for about 20 to 30 minutes," says Dr. Braconaro. "The key is to keep the light box near your face but not to look directly at the light."

  4. Eat healthy. While you may crave comfort foods, eating a more heart-healthy diet can help treat SAD. Research has shown that a diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy proteins decreases the risk of feeling down.

  5. Keep a schedule. Getting enough sleep and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule can help you combat SAD. "Most people need about eight hours of sleep each night, and to fight SAD, it’s helpful to wake up with the sun in the morning," notes Dr. Braconaro.

If these natural remedies don’t seem to be helping, you should let your doctor know. Like other forms of depression, SAD may also be treated with medication like antidepressants and counseling.

A young woman in a knit hat sits in the sun with her feet up, to help combat seasonal affective disorder.

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