Tis the Season
A Q&A with Dr. Steven Sayers of Edmonton, Alberta about Seasonal Depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Interview by Michelle Lindstrom
We’re deep into the cold months in Canada with temperatures varying significantly across the country. But it’s not necessarily the temperature that makes people want to hibernate but rather the amount of sunlight an area gets per season that affects its residents more significantly.
For example, data gathered from Current Results weather and science facts (see month to month averages on site Sunshine Average) compares the typical total number of hours certain cities throughout Canada have month to month as well as the typical number of days these cities have any amount of measurable sunshine (all averages were for the years 1981 to 2010).
Based on their findings for December: Abbotsford, British Columbia has 25% sun | 65 hours of sun in the month | 17 days that month with some measurable sunshine. Compared to Edmonton, Alberta with 36% sun | 84 hours of sun in the month | 23 days that month with some measurable sunshine. Of the cities used in their data, Calgary, Alberta had the highest stats of sunshine in December with 46% sun | 114 hours of sun in the month | 27 days that month with some measurable sunshine.
I spoke with Dr. Steven Sayers to learn more about the affects of sunlight and how it connects with depression.
Dr. Steven Sayers is a general practitioner who moved from Scotland to Edmonton, Alberta 18 months ago. He’s a private contractor but most of his work is done for Alberta Health Services in a clinic run by a colleague.
His training included many different hospital specialties before becoming a GP, including psychiatry, pediatrics, obstetrics, gynecology and more. His current and main interest is based around mental health and he does some hypnosis.
Q. How would you define seasonal depression? Does it differ from a more traditional depression?
A. We’ve got the pineal gland, which is basically our hibernation gland in the brain that actually reacts to light. So as the nights get darker, we generally do want to stay in and eat more comfort foods and sleep more. It’s the same gland that makes birds migrate and bears hibernate. It’s relatively okay to feel that way (eating and staying in) because it’s pretty natural, but if it has an affect that lowers your serotonin, which is an anti-depressant chemical, you can start to get the more classical depression symptoms. Those are when you start to feel more tired, have low moods, don’t sleep or eat as well as you usually do and your concentration levels go down. They’re all the symptoms of depression. It doesn’t really matter calling it seasonal depression, it’s no different than regular depression, it’s just triggered by longer, darker nights.
Q. Are some people more prone to the longer nights/less sunlight triggering seasonal depression?
A. Yes, some people are. They probably have bigger pineal glands that are reacting differently. All these hormones are very complexly linked and we can’t really measure serotonin (anti-depressant chemical) so it’s all theory really since we can’t do blood tests to check it. So yes, some people generally do have a tendency to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). If you have it one year, you’re more likely to have it recurrently. There are definitely a lot of things that you can do to counteract it.
Q. What would be some tips to prevent SAD or recover from it?
A. If you do have it, you can buy light boxes. They were developed in Northern Europe in Finland. It’s a specific ultraviolet radiation that mimics the sun. So it can’t just be a normal lamp like turning on your bedside lamp, it has to specifically be the seasonal light and you can buy them in Canada. You basically put it on in the morning, get some exposure to the skin and then put it on in the evening as well so you can sit at home in front of it. That’s how the boosting effect on the brain can counteract depression: by acting on the pineal gland and your body responds to the light waves.
Q. Is there any harm from those rays of light as you mention they are U.V. Rays?
A. No, it’s not like a tanning light. It’s very effective and has good studies done in Northern Europe. So you can get them here and I’ve seen people use them with success.
Q. Other prevention or recovery tips?
A. You can also get St. John’s wort. The only thing with that is you have to make sure you’re not on any other medications that will interact with it. One of the major ones is birth control (loses its efficacy). If you’re thinking about using it and you’re not sure about conflicting medications, see a herbalist, pharmacist or your doctor. St. John’s wort is from the root of a plant, discovered in Britain in the 600s. It has had Western medical studies done on it indicating it’s just as effective as some anti-depressants. And you can take it without a prescription.
Q. If someone has never experienced SAD before, but is feeling some of the symptoms listed above, what should they do?
A. If they’ve never had SAD before, they should get checked out by a doctor. If they’ve never had blood tests, they could have an under active thyroid or are anemic, which can give similar symptoms as well. Just get assessed. A good doctor’s not just going to throw anti-depressants at you. If it’s mild and you don’t think it’s bad enough to see a doctor, you could try these things (i.e. light box and St. John’s wort) but if it doesn’t improve, that would be the time to see someone. It’s not like you can’t try things yourself but if you’re worried about symptoms, just get assessed. It’s important not to over-do the self-treatment in case somebody struggles with depression and it could have been caught earlier.
Q. If someone has experienced SAD in previous years and an upcoming winter is near, should they start using a light box before the nights start getting darker and full-on winter is upon them?
A. Yes definitely, because that gives you a sense of control in your own health. If you’re anxious about it and it’s happened before and you’ve gotten over it over the summer, then you can definitely do some preventative action and prepare for the clocks going back with the light box or St. John’s wort for the change of the season.
Q. Any other tips?
A. Just stay active because some people tend to hibernate in the winter and stay inside so they don’t get out and don’t get any exercise. Then their exercise levels go down and they eat comfort foods and Christmas foods and that can make things worse rather than better. The “general advice” is: 30 minutes of activity five times a week where you get a bit of a sweat on the brow – and that still applies in the winter. Some people who don’t like winter sports can stay indoors. Indoor activities are just as good as outdoors. And if your elderly, chair exercises are good, too – anything counts. The best anti-depressant is an endorphin that’s released with active exercise.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, North & West Vancouver branch SAD’s cause is assumed to be lack of sunlight but it may not be the whole answer. It’s thought to run in families as well because 13 to 17 per cent of people who develop SAD have an immediate family member with the disorder. The site states: “About 2 to 3% of Canadians will experience SAD in their lifetime. Another 15% will experience a milder form of SAD that leaves them only slightly depressed, but still able to live their life without major disruptions. People with seasonal affective disorder make up about 10% of all depression cases.”