Getting through SAD

HANCOCK – Everyone who lives in the Copper Country and other northern climates knows the lack of sunshine during the winter can lead to a case of the blues, but it can also cause a more serious psychological disorder called Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Debbie Makkonen, who is a holistic psychotherapist with an office in the Jutila Center for Global Design and Business in Hancock, said she has clients who have varying degrees of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD as it’s commonly called. She defines SAD as any psychological disorder which happens two consecutive years or more at the same time of year.

“If at the beginning of December you start feeling depressed and you did that last year, and the rest of the time you’re feeling nothing, no depression, that’s Seasonal Affective Disorder,” she said.

As with all psychological disorders, Makkonen said there is a range of SAD conditions from the winter blues on the light end to suicidal thoughts at the extreme end. The condition usually happens in autumn, winter and spring.

With the onset of SAD, Makkonen said a person will not feel like doing anything, even things that person usually enjoys very much. Some of the symptoms include over eating, over sleeping and a sense of hopelessness.

Makkonen said SAD is a condition more prevalent in northern latitudes than in southern latitudes.

In the not-too-distant past, Makkonen said SAD was thought by many health care professionals to not be a real condition, but most do accept it as real now.

“It’s been researched, and it does exist,” she said.

For her clients, Makkonen recommends a lifestyle change to help treat SAD, including proper nutrition, exercise, meditation, visualization of warm weather, regular sleep patterns, and socialization.

However, Makkonen said it’s best to make those changes before the season changes.

“Once the symptoms start, it’s harder to alter what you do,” she said.

One of the theories about the cause of SAD is the reduction in sunlight during the winter months, and Makkonen said she does suggest light therapy with a light box.

“Any kind of light, they find beneficial,” she said.

Although some people use a visor with a light in it, Makkonen said that may not be the best treatment.

“It’s hard to remember to use them every day,” she said.

As with any psychological condition, Makkonen said alcohol or drugs – other than those prescribed by a doctor – can make SAD worse.

“If you have suicidal thoughts, go to a doctor immediately,” she said.

Mariana Perinot is a medical doctor at the Aspirus Keweenaw Medical Arts Center in Houghton, and she also has patients with SAD.

Perinot said the number of people in the United States with SAD can be as high as 40 percent of the population.

“The Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression,” she said.

Although it’s been known for years the use of light therapy helps those with SAD, Perinot said no research has been done to determine why that is.

“We don’t really know,” she said.

One theory is that the lack of sunlight can reduce the levels of the hormone serotonin, which can trigger depression, Perinot said.

Perinot said her first line of treatment for SAD patients is light therapy.

Most people do it early in the morning,” she said. “However, it’s not for everyone.”

Perinot said it’s important people know tanning salon lights do not help with treating SAD.

In some patients, if light therapy isn’t administered properly, there could be side effects, such as headaches, irritability and insomnia, if used late in the day.

Although she may recommend drugs to treat severe cases, Perinot said she also recommends regular exercise, proper diet and taking a Vitamin D supplement.

Makkonen said all forms of SAD are treatable, and those with the condition should seek help.

“We have a lot more power than we realize,” she said. “Don’t suffer through it.”