It can be known as the dark days of winter. Sunrise and sunset leave the Brainerd lakes area with just 8-9 hours of daylight between December and March and often times can lead to an overall glum feeling.
But that glum feeling is not just an emotional sad day – sometimes it can be something much more.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is recognized in climates where sunlight decreases during the winter season.
According to Dr. Mark Holub, an on-staff psychiatric specialist at Lakewood Health in Staples, depression is the most common behavioral condition treated at Lakewood and the most treatable. And in the months following holiday spending, snow and an increase in darkness, Holub said that is when the number of patients with SAD really rises.
“SAD has both biological, psychological and emotional components in it,” said Holub, who has been with Lakewood Health for five years. “As a physician, we focus on the biological part aspect.
“In the winter, the low amount of light, especially in our area, the human brain releases more melatonin in response to the low light, giving people those symptoms of wanting to sleep all day, eating abnormally and usually low energy. In the spring and summer patients diagnosed with SAD tend to do pretty well and are not in a depressive state, but when they wake up for work and it’s dark and they come home and it’s nearly dark, that low light increases those symptoms, usually worse in January, February and March.”
Playing into the biological symptoms are also the social aspects of depression. According to Dr. Corrie Brown, a clinical therapist at Lakewood Health, due to the often frigid climate and darkness, she sees patients also missing that social interaction in the winter months that is often necessary for human’s emotional and behavioral state.
“People tend to isolate themselves more in the winter months,” said Brown who has been at Lakewood Health nearly five years. “They aren’t getting that regular social interaction or going to their regular activities maybe due to weather or road conditions.
“At the same time we see them then not eating well or getting their exercise, walking to the mailbox to get their mail and that often times can lead to a depressive state.”
So how do you treat SAD?
Holub said first and foremost people who suspect something is off and think they might be suffering from SAD should visit their primary physician. Holub said that other things could be leading to the symptoms that they are feeling like thyroid disease and a doctor should first rule those out before considering SAD
Holub said for those who are experiencing those symptoms and it is SAD, antidepressants are very affective. Another unique treatment Holub said studies have shown to work is a 10,000 lux light therapy, where patients dose themselves with light for 30-45 minutes first thing in the morning.
“What this does, is it tricks the brain into thinking that it’s bright sunshine,” he said. “However it is something that needs to be very measured and isn’t an instance where more is better. I usually recommend patients get up an hour earlier and use the light during that time.”
Holub said that the lights can be purchased online or at most stores like Target or Walmart. He stressed that patients shouldn’t go overboard with the treatment. Excessive use often times results in insomnia and interfering with normal sleep regiman.
In addition to medications and treatments, Brown said she practices a lifestyle change as well to further help patients overcome their depressive state.
“From my approach, I teach skills on managing the diagnosis of SAD and removing those barriers for a behavioral change,” she said. “One of the biggest things is when people deny that they have a problem with depressing. They have to learn how to first deal with being diagnosed and then adjust and manage that accordingly.
“It’s not something that happens overnight (accepting that a person has depression) and it requires a lifestyle change. But once patients come to terms they find that it really is easily managed along with diet and exercise.”
And no matter the depth of depression, whether it’s a year, a month or a few weeks, Brown added that it is something that is easily fixed.
“The rate of recovery is so high from depression that what we are passionate about doing is removing those barriers and stigma that is associated with it,” said Brown. “We are working so hard to treat it because it is so treatable and we have these services in the lakes area for people suffering.”