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Dark winter mood? Come to the light! - (12/31/2019)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Mrs. Simms came into the pharmacy and asked the pharmacist if he could get her prescriptions filled within the hour. "It's already 3:30, and I have grocery shopping to do. And I don't like driving home in the dark. This time of year, it’s pitch black by 5 PM." The pharmacist agreed that the winter months could be dismal, especially for people who tend to get depressed because of the reduction in daylight hours. Factor in gloomy, cloudy days, and one would sell one's soul for a sunny beach.

However, many of us cannot escape to the Islands for a bunch of reasons, like work and family. Seasonal Affective Disorder, appropriately acronymized as SAD, plagues about 3 million Americans each winter. Signs and symptoms of SAD may include feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day. Other signs may involve losing interest in activities you once enjoyed, having low energy, and having problems with sleeping. You may be up all night, and when morning comes, the blankets go up over your head.

Moreover, your appetite and weight get crazy. You may forgo your healthy summer salads for a boxed, microwaveable mystery casserole. A few hundred of these will make you call your bathroom scale a liar! You may feel sluggish and irritable – no fun to live with. Your thoughts are all over the map, making you feel worthless and hopeless. On the extreme side, one may have frequent thoughts of death or suicide. You think that if the sun ever shines, you will throw off your parka and go dashing through the snow.  

SAD can be seriously crippling. Those at highest risk are female, are younger, live far from the equator, and have family histories of depression, bipolar disorder, or SAD. Yes, there are ways to overcome it. First, see your doctor. That way, he or she can determine the depths of your sadness. Does the depression that last longer than winter? Should you take medication for it? Antidepressants may be valuable. However, they come with side effects that may be more troublesome than SAD itself. 

Light therapy, also called phototherapy, is an accepted treatment option for SAD patients. A 2015 literature review gave it a “possibly effective” rating with the average wait time of 2 to 3 weeks. “Happy” lamps are available everywhere online. Pay attention to the manufacturers’ directions as to the length of time one should sit in front of the lamp. Other studies, including a 2018 review, have shown that phototherapy, coupled with an antidepressant, can help treat SAD. Fluoxetine (Prozac®) has been used in treating SAD, while bupropion (Wellbutrin®) has been utilized in preventing SAD.  

Also, you can make your environment sunnier. Leave the Christmas lights up until March. Eat fresh fruit – blueberries, blackberries, and clementine oranges can elevate your mood while filling your stomach with vitamins and antioxidants. Replace your afternoon nap with a brisk walk – and take the dog. Start a garage band or join a choir. Go dancing. Jump out of bed and have some laughs!

Suicide is a significant problem these days. The pharmacist understands this. But if God gives us only a finite number of days to live – whether it is 10,000 or 36,500 days - make all of them count. If someone gave you a gym membership for Christmas, do not let it lapse. Go to the gym for the first week, and simply stand there. Soon, you will lift one weight, walk a half-mile on the treadmill, and talk to one person next to you. Before long, you will be back to your cheery self and realize that winter can be a great time. And you can still happily count the days until spring. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.com

 


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