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Seasonal Affective Disorder more than just the winter blues, doctor says

Dr. Ahmed Saleh, in-patient psychiatrist at the Valley Regional Hospital in Kentville says Seasonal Affective Disorder impacts two to three per cent of Canadians.
Dr. Ahmed Saleh, in-patient psychiatrist at the Valley Regional Hospital in Kentville says Seasonal Affective Disorder impacts two to three per cent of Canadians. - Submitted

WINDSOR, N.S. — Feeling more sleepy than usual? Apathetic? Depressed? It’s possible you or others you know could be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a serious psychological condition that impacts about three per cent of all Canadians.

Dr. Ahmed Saleh, in-patient psychiatrist at the Valley Regional Hospital in Kentville, said he believes many cases likely go undiagnosed.

“Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is kind of a depression that is more so related to the lack of sunlight someone is exposed to,” Saleh said. “It usually occurs around the same time every year. In order for it to be diagnosed, a person must have had it for the previous two years at least in order to distinguish from other forms of depression.”

Saleh said symptoms usually begin near the onset of winter and start to resolve in the spring, as the sun stays out longer.

“If someone is having seasonal psychological or social stressors, like being unemployed every winter, that won’t be related to SAD. It’s purely by the time of the season,” he said.

Saleh said SAD impacts between two to three per cent of all Canadians and people with SAD make up approximately 10 per cent of all depression cases.

The reason why it’s important to distinguish SAD from other forms of depression is that SAD presents different opportunities for therapeutic intervention and treatment options.

“The symptoms vary from person to person,” he said. “Some people find that they’re sleeping all the time or having difficulty sleeping, are tired all the time, a change in appetite, craving sugary and starchy food, gaining weight, unusually sad, guilty, hopeless and irritable.”

Saleh said the disorder can impact a person’s relationships, employment and other facets of their life.

People who live in northern countries are more likely to suffer from SAD, due to the darker winters. Women are also more prone to the disorder than men.

Saleh said when it comes to why SAD occurs when people are deprived of sunlight, the jury is still out, but there are theories.

One theory is that it’s related to the human body’s internal clock, which regulates temperature, hormones, and more.

“These nerve centres in your brain, which control your moods, daily rhythms, are usually stimulated by the amount of light that enters your eyes,” he said. “When there’s reduced light, there’s a chemical imbalance that occurs, which can cause someone to develop a depression.”

Other researchers say SAD may be related to serotonin — a neuro-transmitter that helps to regulate mood and behaviour.  Lower levels of sunlight has been known to impact serotonin.

“We do know that the amount of sunlight is at play,” he said. “But how it interacts with the complex brain system, is still theories.”

People have can have a variety of reactions to SAD, he said. Some can brush it off as winter blues, while others can develop a more severe form of depression from it.

“It could become something more severe down the road if not addressed appropriately,” he said.

Saleh said people should consult their healthcare provider if they find they’re experiencing these symptoms.

Still, he said some people shrug this off as not a big deal, when he says it can be a serious condition.

“Sometimes it’s just referred to as the winter blues, that they’ll just snap out of it,” he said. “However, there are people who experience a more severe form of it.”


Saleh said there are a range of treatments available, including counselling, medications or light therapy, either in combination or separately.

With light therapy, individuals are exposed to artificial light that mimics actual sunlight.

Specialized devices are used to simulate sunlight, and can be used at home, at the office or wherever needed.

“Light therapy affects the brain chemicals, which are linked to mood, sleep and hopefully will ease the SAD symptoms,” he said. “It’s a very common and evidence-based treatment.”

Most common light-boxes emit artificial sunlight between 2,500 and 10,000 lux. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, patients could sit near one of these lights between 30 minutes and two hours each day.

Saleh said he usually notices results in a few weeks of using light therapy.

Another thing people can do to minimize the symptoms is to spend more time outside — taking walks while the sun is out, opening blinds and drapes to allow maximum sunlight into their home or workplace, even moving furniture around to be near sunlight.

“If all else fails, consider taking a vacation to somewhere with a sunny climate,” he said with a laugh. “If I could write a prescription, I would. But exercise and getting outside would help.”

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