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People in these parts suffer more from seasonal depression

The days, they're getting shorter, and as they are, our brains are doing something most may not even realize - they're changing with the season. "We need the light," said Dr. Michael Stewart, a psychologist with Essentia Health in Detroit Lakes. ...

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The days, they’re getting shorter, and as they are, our brains are doing something most may not even realize - they’re changing with the season.

“We need the light,” said Dr. Michael Stewart, a psychologist with Essentia Health in Detroit Lakes.

“If you don’t have enough light, it affects the circadian rhythm, which has to do with the rhythms of wakefulness and sleep.”

For some, says Stewart, this will disturb that rhythm in a way that leads to a loss of energy and affects the neurotransmitter levels in the brain. And if those are off, it can often lead to depression. It’s called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. It tends to fester in the fall and relent in the spring. It also tends to be most severe for people who live further north, like this region.

So what does SAD look like?

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“Depression causes life loses its luster, its excitement,” said Stewart, who says people will stop doing the things they typically enjoy in life.

“They spend a lot of time in bed, but the sleep isn’t restorative, so they’re tired all the time,” said Stewart.

“As if all this wasn’t enough, appetite tends to go up, and there’s a tendency to crave carbohydrates and sweets, so you might see weight gain in the wintertime.”

People suffering from SAD may feel irritable, there may be a loss of concentration and work becomes harder than normal.

Stewart says this manifests a little differently in different people and at different severity levels.

“There is something called the ‘winter blues,’ and that is where you might feel some of the effects, but it isn’t enough to be diagnosable,” said Stewart.

Regardless of whether it’s the winter blues or full blown SAD, Stewart says the starting point for treatment can be the same and fairly simple.

Fending off the misery

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Initial treatment of SAD may seem overly simple, but according to Stewart, can be incredibly effective - a good diet and plenty of exercise.

“This can be difficult to do, since the person feels tired and unmotivated, but if you can get them up and get them to do regular, aerobic exercise, it can be as effective as medicine - it’s that good,” said Stewart.

If this proves not enough for SAD sufferers, Stewart says light therapy treatment for 20 to 30 minutes per day can also be effective.

“It’s a very bright light; there’s nothing special about the actual light, other than it’s very bright at 10,000 lux,” said Stewart, who says the medical devices are acquired through prescription, can typically run between $200 to $300, and can sometimes be at least partially covered by insurance.

He also adds that although some people use tanning beds to fend off SAD and admits they can be effective for the disorder, he never recommends them due to the other harmful aspects of them.

If good diet, ample exercise and a SAD lamp still doesn’t cut it, therapy can be another additional option.

Cognitive behavior therapy is designed to help identify negative patterns of thinking.

“It helps people find a more realistic way to think about their life and struggles - helps them identify problems,” said Stewart, who says it also gives sufferers a good, solid person to actually talk to about the problem.

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“Because many times, people don’t want to talk to their spouse or friends about it because they feel it’s a burden,” said Stewart.

“And so they put on a happy face and create a facade, but really, they’re miserable inside.”

Stewart says he likes this option because it gives people the power to learn how to overcome the negative thinking that can take over a person, and that tool can be used over a lifetime.

If those options are exhausted, Stewart says SAD sufferers can ask their doctors about antidepressants.

He says medication has proven effective for some, but cautions that they should really only be used on people who have severe bouts of SAD.

“Because there are other side effects associated with taking antidepressants,” said Stewart.

At risk

So who tends to be affected by SAD? According to Stewart, anybody can (including children), but there are risk factors. Those include people who have other family members affected by the disorder, women, elderly, people already prone to depression and those who live further away from the equator and closer to the north and south poles.

Stewart says if somebody suspects they may be feeling the effects of SAD, a good starting point is their primary care doctor.

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Related Topics: HEALTH
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