Don’t let seasonal affective disorder give you the winter blues

November 16, 2010

By Laura Geggel

People living in the Pacific Northwest have a double whammy. The northern latitude and cloudy weather not only make it hard to get enough vitamin D from the sun, but it also makes the days darker and shorter.

It’s a good recipe for the winter blues, known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

During the winter, “most of us who work inside may not even be outside in the sunshine at all,” Steven Hughes, primary care doctor and medical director of Overlake Medical Clinic — Issaquah, said. “In the office I’m in, there are no windows, so I get up early and walk my dog in the dark, work inside and go home and walk my dog in the dark.”

The short days and long dark nights can affect people’s activities and moods. Instead of going running or bike riding, people tend to stay inside, being inert instead of active — a contributor to SAD.

While SAD does not have its own category as a mental disorder, it is a type of depression. People with SAD may be irritable, avoid social interaction, have increased appetites without increased activity and may start sleeping more during the day, which can lead to insomnia at night.

Darius Zoroufy, a Swedish Medical Center-affiliated sleep specialist who works part time in Issaquah, helps people with SAD get their sleeping schedule back on track.

The seasonal change can disrupt melatonin, a natural hormone that plays a role in sleep rhythms and mood.

“People will have been doing just fine, and then they’ll start to stay up later or start to sleep really late and have trouble getting up in the morning,” Zoroufy said.

People will make appointments with him and say, “You’ve got to fix me again,” he said.

Zoroufy works with his patients, finding the best ways for them to beat SAD. Sometimes, he works on a specific sleep schedule for them.

If that doesn’t work, he may ask them to spend time with a sun lamp — a good way to trick the brain into thinking it’s a nice, sunny day.

He also prescribes antidepressants, and said people should contact their physician sooner rather than later, so that their depression does not deepen and get worse.

Of course, the best cure would be to spend time in a sunny place, like Southern California, but “We have trouble getting insurance companies to cover that,” Zoroufy said.

The best, and cheapest source of treatment can be as simple as exercising with friends, Hughes said.

“One of the things that impacts us in the Northwest is we are outside people,” he said. “When the darker weather comes around, we tend to become cave dwellers”

He encouraged people to work out at a gym, go running or dancing, or join a sports league — something that includes interaction with other people.

“Interaction is good for people with SAD,” he said.

Both physicians encouraged people to take vitamin D supplements.

“We used to think it was important, because it traps calcium and makes healthy bones,” Hughes said. “It turns out vitamin D is helpful for the immune system and psoriasis and eczema. We treat those with topical vitamin D.”

A vitamin D deficiency can worsen SAD, Zoroufy said.

People can also avoid alcohol, which can aggravate both depression and sleep cycles.

Hughes encouraged people to see their doctor if they feel down.

“Sometimes I ask people, ‘Are you having a good time? Are you enjoying life?’” Hughes said. “When they say ‘no,’ that’s a tip off that maybe they have a pressing issue or a mood disorder.”

Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or lgeggel@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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