Seasonal depression: A modern ill with ancient roots

Posted Dec. 20, 2012, at 3:25 p.m.

With the winter season officially starting Friday, many Mainers are feeling the drag of seasonal depression.

Clinically known as seasonal affective disorder, the “winter blues” that disturb many modern lives are rooted in humans’ ancient traditions and basic genetic code, according to Dr. Cliff Singer, chief of geriatric mental health and neuropsychiatry at the Acadia Hospital in Bangor.

As winter days shorten and the nights grow longer, our bodies yearn for sleep and conserve energy in a biological response that once helped our forbears to adapt to seasonal changes in fertility, crop harvesting and the hunt for food, he said.

“We have deep in our brains, still, the components of adjusting our sleep and energy, mood, and behavior to life as it exists in nature,” Singer said.

The effects can be more pronounced at the higher latitudes, which are home to longer winter nights. At Maine’s latitude, an estimated 20 percent of people experience significant seasonal variations, such as irritability, weight gain, and a loss of interest in sex, Singer said.

For some, the symptoms become severe enough to interfere with daily life, leading to a diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder.

“It’s not an all-or-nothing thing,” Singer said. “It tends to be a spectrum or gradient of severity. Some people are affected enough that they should seek help. Other people just notice mild variations in sleep pattern, energy, weight, and mood season to season.”

Seasonal affective disorder typically begins during the teen years and early adulthood, but can crop up among older adults who move north from warmer climates, he said. Like other mood disorders, it strikes women more often than men.

Symptoms are the same as with other forms of depression, including hopelessness, low energy, difficulty concentrating, and loss of interest in work or other activities.

Bright light therapy offers relief for many sufferers of seasonal affective disorder, said Singer, who formerly worked as a research fellow at Oregon Health and Science University with Dr. Alfred Lewy, a widely recognized expert on the therapy.

Patients generally sit in front of a small box that emanates light on the blue-green end of the spectrum during the early morning hours, which mimics sunrise. It generally takes about half an hour to reap benefits, Singer said.

Patients should consult a doctor before starting treatment, and always seek help if symptoms are severe or thoughts of suicide occur. Some sufferers require antidepressant medications, Singer said.

Patients with mild symptoms can benefit from exercising outdoors or near a window when the weather’s bad, Singer said. Talk therapy, meditation and even imagining light can also help, he said.

“And not stressing out about the holidays,” he added.

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