By Melissa Swanson
It is that time of year again: the onset of fall and the change of daylight hours. For as long as I can remember, each year as the days grew shorter, the nights grew longer, and the weather got colder, I would begin to struggle with lower energy levels, craving carbs, weight gain, increased fatigue and depression. My mom always called it feeling "down-in-the-dumps" or "the winter blues."
As an adult, I began to notice the pattern. Every year I would be in the doctor's office, an emotional mess reporting the same feelings. I finally received the diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is described as a type of major depression linked to the changing seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer.
Those with SAD often experience depression, lethargy, sleep problems, anxiety, withdrawal, loss of libido and craving carbohydrates and sweet foods leading to weight gain.
SAD is quite prevalent in Fibromyalgia and CFS/ME. More than 50% of fibromyalgia sufferers report symptoms of SAD during the winter months.
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder can range from mild to severe and, in some cases, the illness can become debilitating. It can complicate fibromyalgia by causing increased muscle stiffness, anxiety and disturbed sleep.
"In nature, winter is a season for saving energy for spring and re-growth. For humans, winter is a time to reflect. The sun’s energy is in high demand for those who have seasonal affect disorder. In other words, it is a time when our energy may not be easily supported." Celeste Cooper, Broken Body, Wounded Spirit: Balancing the SeeSaw of Chronic Pain – Winter Devotions edition
I live in Northern Wisconsin and even before I was sick, I was not a cold weather person. Now, on weekends when I do not have to get dressed and leave the house for work, I don’t. That kind of isolation is not good for anyone fighting depression. I have found that I need to start my combat against the symptoms of SAD as early as September and continue until May.
Battling the Sadness
In addition to exercise, getting enough sleep, eating a well-balanced diet, and reducing stress, there are a range of treatments to help combat SAD.
Let the Sunshine In: Open the curtains & blinds. It is especially important to get the morning light. In addition, I light spring-scented candles to help give me the feeling of spring/summer.
Stay Active: Spending time outdoors helps ease symptoms of SAD. Go for a walk. Even if it is a bit gray outdoors, you will still get some much needed Vitamin D.
Supplements for SAD: Take a multi-vitamin every day. Additional supplements include:
- Vitamin D
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Light Therapy: Doctors may prescribe light therapy to help reduce SAD symptoms. There are several devices available – from portable light boxes, full spectrum light bulbs, to dawn simulators.
“I was prescribed by a psychiatrist my SAD light over 15 years ago and it has really made a difference in my depression. I start using it in September through April each year. Sit approximately 16" from light 30 minutes per day before daylight if possible. Helps with the time changes a little. I don't feel so irritated by things, no energy, blue most of the time … I shouldn't be feeling like that. It is a serious disorder and is treatable, so don't hesitate to ask for help.” says Beth H.
I laughed when my doctor suggested I go to someplace warm for a week or two each winter.
"Sure, can I have a prescription for that?"
I did have an opportunity to spend 5 days in Arizona and was amazed at how fantastic I felt while I was there. You can read about that experience here.
In a perfect world, we would all have the money to spend a week or two somewhere warm soaking up some vitamin D. Until that dream becomes a reality, making these changes a regular part of your routine beginning in the fall may help lessen the effects of SAD.
Always talk to your doctor concerning the treatment of depression of any kind.
Melissa Swanson is a chronic pain patient, advocate, and author of Ravyn’s Doll: How to Explain Fibromyalgia to Your Child. Through her Facebook page, she offers positive encouragement, medical information, resources, and support to 16,000+ fibromyalgia and chronic pain patients. In addition to her own blog, Melissa has been published in "Living Well with Fibromyalgia" and the NFMCPA "Advocate Voice." She's a graduate of the 2014 Class of Leaders Against Pain Scholarship Training sponsored by the National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association and a member of the Leaders Against Pain Action Network.
You can find Melissa at: