Seasonal Affective Disorder

Is Tanning the Seasonal Depression TreatmentYou’ve Been Waiting For?

April 16, 2021

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Image courtesy of HealthDay.

Chances are you’ve heard of Seasonal Depression, a type of depression that is often over-simplified as “Winter Blues.”It’s actual name is Seasonal Affective Disorder, and it’s acronym-- SAD-- is a somewhat accurate self-contained definition, although it’s often more complex than it appears. SAD can have just as many misunderstood and underrepresented symptoms as Clinical Depression, including, but not limited to: apathy, lost of interest in things you usually enjoy, low or no energy, a noticeable or severe change in appetite levels, difficulty concentrating, feeling hopeless or like a burden for any or no reason. And unfortunately, suicidal ideation can also be a part of SAD.

What you may not realize about SAD is that there are two types: Fall/Winter onset, and Spring/Summer onset. What’s also interesting is that the symptoms that appear specific to each seem to reflect the themes of each season:

Fall/Winter (hibernation)

  • Lethargy
  • Weight Gain
  • Exhaustion
  • Oversleeping

Spring/Summer (activity)

  • Insomnia
  • Weight Loss
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety

SAD appears to be triggered by changes in light, serotonin, or melatonin.Interestingly enough, the further away from the equator you live, the more likely you are to suffer from SAD.

So what works for treating SAD? There are some myths and real treatments, so let’s go through them in this article:

  • Is tanning an effective treatment?
  • Healthy ways to cope
  • When to get professional help
Seasonal Depression is thought to be related to loss of light, as perceived through the eyes.Image courtesy of Sharon McCutcheon via Pexels.

Does tanning work for seasonal depression?

Because SAD appears to be connected to light, there is a myth that tanning is a treatment. In fact, it is not recommended at all. Let’s take a closer look at the tanning treats SAD myth.

Fall/Winter onset SAD is thought to be related to the loss of light and shorter days. So it naturally makes sense to try and treat this type of SAD with light, doesn’t it? And those who suffer from SAD often have lower vitamin D levels, which can be obtained from supplements, but sun exposure is better.

The key though is that it has to be SAFE sun exposure, with sunscreen. And the way that the light exposure affects the brain is through the eyes, not the skin. And the type of light used in tanning beds is not the exact same as the sun, so that effect is lost twice over. Additionally, the goggles they use in tanning beds don’t always block out the recommended amount of light, leaving your eyes vulnerable to the UV light that is often much stronger than real sunshine.

The stronger UV light allows for shorter and quicker tans, but always causes skin damage and ups your risk of developing skin cancer.

Bottom line, tanning does not work for seasonal depression, and in fact causes more harm than good in the long run.

Women are nearly twice as likely to develop depression than men. Image courtesy of Engin Ackyurt via Pexels.

Healthy ways to cope with seasonal depression

So how DO you handle Seasonal Affective Disorder or seasonal depression symptoms? First, we do recommend getting a professional diagnosis and treatment plan (see the next section). Secondly, there are plenty of healthy ways to treat and manage symptoms on your own.

One of the most well-known ways to treat SAD is with light therapy, but not the kind of light that a tanning booth provides. This is provided with a special light box with specific light bulbs that mimic sunlight for the eyes. You sit in front of this lightbox for up to half an hour as close to first thing in the morning as you’re able to manage. There’s a UV filter to reduce the risk of skin cancer. You don’t look at the light-- it’s pretty bright, and looking directly at lights isn’t smart anyway-- you read, journal, meditate, or do something else in front of it.In fact, the real benefits happen when the light is in our periphery vision anyway. Think about placing your light box in your office or bedroom-- somewhere safe where you can easily and comfortably sit near it without it being in your direct line of sight.

Do be aware though and do your research, as the Food and Drug Administration is not in charge of regulating light boxes. There is some inconclusive evidence that cooler, blue light may have some benefits, but again, there is no concrete evidence to back up that claim. When selecting a light box, make sure that there is a UV filter, and that the light is on the red end of the spectrum, emitting 10,000 lux. Non-profit site Center for Environment Therapeutics has information on how to select your own lightbox.

Upping vitamin D levels can sometimes help alleviate symptoms or boost mood. The research is inconclusive, but ensuring that you’re getting at least the daily recommended amount won’t hurt. Vitamin D is produced by our bodies when they are exposed to the sun’s rays, specifically the UV rays. Low vitamin D levels are linked to depression in general, but whether it specifically helps SAD is yet to be determined.

Popular in Europe and gaining popularity in the US, St. John’s Wort may be an effective treatment for both general depression and SAD. This homeopathic remedy is plant-based, and a classic in the herbal medicine drawer. The plant’s combination of chemicals may boost production of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine-- the brain’s “feel good” neurotransmitters. It can be used in conjunction with light therapy, though it may be wise to add sunscreen as St. John’s Wort can cause photosensitivity if taken for long periods of time.

Of course, there are some classic ways to manage any depression or depressive period that just are part of a healthy lifestyle. Exercise is a huge part of this-- a brisk 10-15 minute walk can boost mood for 2 hours or longer. That’s just enough time to take a screen break but not cut into your work time too much.If you’re worried about cutting into family time, include them-- have a short dance party, or play a quick game of tag. Make sure that you’re getting non-screen time away from TV and phones when getting ready for bed, and try to get good sleep. Stay hydrated, and eat as healthily as you can afford to do. Studies show that diets high in omega 3’s and antioxidants may help boost or stabilize moods.

This list may seem overwhelming, especially if your depression symptoms are already gripping you. Our advice is to try for one of these things in a small way, every day, until it becomes a habit. Then add one more thing, and repeat it until it becomes a comfortable thing to do. Having a healthy lifestyle that stabilizes your mood and manages your depression isn’t something you can completely change and flip to overnight-- it’ll put too much stress on your nerves and systems and the changes won’t stick. Working at it one step at a time makes it easier to manage and more likely to be a lasting healthy habit.

If you’re no longer active and enjoying the things you used to because you have trouble caring or staying motivated, it might be time to speak to a mental health professional.Image courtesy of Masha Raymers via Pexels.

Seeking professional help for S.A.D.

Experts agree that if your SAD symptoms are affecting your ability to function in your daily life, it’s time to seek professional help. At that point, your SAD could be diagnosed as clinical depression. Of course, you do not ever have to wait until things “get that bad” to get medical and psychological help. If at any point you want or need more support, that is also the perfect time to seek out a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other type of mental health professional.

Nearly 20 million Americans--that’s just Americans, not the globe--suffer from some type of chronic depression and women are nearly twice as likely to develop it than men. It’s important to understand that having a type of depression or other mental illness is NOT a weakness-- it is a treatable, understandable, medical condition.

Some symptoms to watch out for may overlap with those of SAD, but the difference is the severity of them and/or the length of time you go without feeling better:

  • Weight loss or gain, as well as appetite loss or gain
  • Feeling an emptiness, lack of drive, lack of purpose
  • A growing disinterest in activities you used to love that just won’t go away
  • You just can’t or don’t feel better--you’re constantly “dragged down,” worn out, fatigued, or even sickly
  • Trouble with concentration, awareness, and/or short term memory
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions, however, passive they are

The general guidelines professionals go by (remember, these are guidelines and are flexible) are experiencing 5 or more of the above symptoms, nearly every day, for around two weeks or longer. But if at any point your symptoms interfere with your daily life, you feel suicidal, or overwhelmed do not hesitate to seek help. Your regular Primary Care Physician is a good place to start, or if you don’t have one, try calling your insurance company for a list of professionals in your area that accept your insurance.

There is hope and accessible treatments available for SAD and other types of depression. Image courtesy of Luis Dalvan via Pexels.

If you don’t have insurance, there is usually some type of sliding scale clinic within driving distance provided by religious, academic, or non-profit agencies. Many colleges and universities provide mental health care for both students and employees, and if they have a Psychology department graduate or PhD program they might have a residency program for a reduced or sliding scale fee.

So no matter what, if you need or want help, it is out there and you deserve to have it.

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