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We can get SAD in the winter, but there are ways to help

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review - 2/26/2018

Feb. 26--It's cloudy. It's cold. You have no energy, and you're simply not motivated to leave your house.

Plus, you're sick of the clouds, the rain and the snow.

Chances are you're suffering from a form of clinical depression dubbed seasonal affective disorder. SAD, in short, is depression that's related to the change in seasons. And it affects millions each year.

"It typically occurs in the winter," says Holly Swartz, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and a psychiatrist at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC. "It remits in the summer."

SAD is caused by the drop in light levels in the fall and winter, according to the Mayo Clinic. The body clock -- circadian rhythm -- is disrupted. Less sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, as well as melatonin. The latter can impact sleep and mood and sap the sufferer's energy.

Complicating matters is the fact that Pittsburgh has plenty of cloudy days. According to citylab.com, Pittsburgh ranks third on the dreariness index. Buffalo has the dubious distinction of being the dreariest city, followed by Seattle. Portland, Ore., Is in fourth place and Cleveland is fifth. Phoenix, Ariz. is last on the list.

"This time of year is definitely a challenge," says Alicia Kaplan, a psychiatrist with Allegheny Health Network. "It might be time to do something for yourself at home. It's important to be nice to yourself."

And it affects more women than men.

TIPS TO BEAT THE WINTER BLUES

If you can't shake the winter blahs, here are some steps you can take:

--See a doctor because SAD is a form of depression, both Swartz and Kaplan says. SAD can be diagnosed through a physical exam and may be because of an underlying health problem, Mayo says. A blood test may be done as well to see if the thyroid is functioning properly.

--Get treatment with antidepressants. SSRIs like Prozac or Celexa can help neurons communicate better in the brain region that regulates mood.

--Use light therapy. With light therapy, the SAD sufferer will sit near a special light box each morning for 20 to 45 minutes with his eyes open and not directly looking at the box. In most cases, the person sits 16 to 24 inches from the box. The light box mimics natural outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals, improving a person's mood. These boxes, which can run from $50 to more than $100, offer exposure to 10,000 lux of light and filter out UV light.

--Try exercise. "Get out in the light as much as possible," Kaplan says. "Walk on a schedule and get aerobic exercise."

--Plan a trip. This will give your brain something to look forward to.

--Get a pet. "Pets are wonderful and very supportive," Kaplan says.

Suzanne Elliott is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at selliott@tribweb.com or 412-871-2346 or via Twitter @41Suzanne

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(c)2018 The Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

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