There’s a Reason Why You’re Feeling SAD

If you’ve been feeling down, sleepy, or hopeless, even with all the holiday merriment going on around you, our primary care concierge doctors in Jupiter want you to know you’re not alone. Health experts estimate that seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or the “winter blues,” affects about five percent of the U.S. population.

SAD is more than just the “winter blues,” according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The symptoms can be distressing and overwhelming, and can interfere with daily functioning, the APA reports. 

Affecting more than 10 million Americans, symptoms of the condition usually begin in October or November and begin to subside in March or April. However, some patients don’t feel fully back to normal until early May.

SAD may begin at any age, but it typically starts when a person is between the ages of 18 and 30 and seems to affect women more than men.


The APA lists the following symptoms associated with SAD:

  • fatigue, even with excessive amounts of sleep
  • weight gain associated with overeating and carbohydrate cravings
  • feelings of sadness or depressed mood
  • marked loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • loss of energy
  • an increase in restless activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing)
  • slowed movements and speech
  • feeling worthless or guilty
  • trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • thoughts of death or suicide or attempts at suicide.

The severity of such symptoms can vary from person to person, and not everyone will experience all these symptoms.

Likely Causes

While no one is certain what causes SAD, the lower amounts of sunlight in fall and winter are believed to lead to a biochemical imbalance in the brain, impacting the body’s circadian clock, which triggers sleep and wake cycles.

This process affects the output of serotonin, the so-called “mood” hormone. Studies have shown that the circadian-related output of serotonin drops markedly with the decrease in light during the winter. It also increases the level of melatonin, a hormone secreted by the pineal gland that regulates the sleep cycle.

The cause of SAD may have an ancient survival connection, as humans learned to restrict activity when food sources were scarce. The tendency may still be hardwired into our biology, and people can experience symptoms on a sliding scale from barely noticeable to full-blown clinical depression.

Risk factors include a family history of SAD or another form of depression, having major depression or bipolar disorder, and having lower levels of vitamin D. Vitamin D is believed to promote serotonin production.


SAD can be effectively treated in a number of ways, including through the use of light-box therapy, which employs specially built full-spectrum lamps to alleviate symptoms. The NIMH reports that this type of therapy has been a mainstay for treating SAD since the 1980s.

In this treatment, a person sits in front of a very bright lightbox (10,000 lux) every day for about 30 to 45 minutes, usually first thing in the morning, from fall to spring. The light boxes, which are about 20 times brighter than ordinary indoor light, filter out the potentially damaging UV light, making this treatment safe for most people.

However, those with certain eye diseases or people taking certain medications that increase their sensitivity to sunlight might need other treatment types.

Other approaches include the use of antidepressants such as Paxil and Prozac, or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy aimed at helping individuals learn how to cope with difficult situations. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also approved another type of antidepressant specifically for SAD: bupropion. In extended-release form, it is taken daily from fall to spring to prevent major depressive episodes.


Meanwhile, there are steps you can take to help mitigate milder cases.

1. Stay active outdoors

Exposure to early morning light has been shown to be the most effective at reducing symptoms, as has regular exercise. An early morning walk or run might be all you need to help alleviate your symptoms.

2. Let in the light

If you can’t get outside, at least let the sunshine in as much as possible. Open blinds and drapes first thing in the morning, and keep them open all day. If you can, arrange your home or office so you’re exposed to as much sunlight as possible during the day (but remember that the sun’s harmful UV rays can penetrate glass, so use sunscreen if you’re actually sitting in the sun all day).

3. Eat right

Simple carbs and sugars wreak havoc with your blood sugar, thereby affecting your mood. Lean meats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and complex carbohydrates will help to keep your brain functioning properly.

4. Take it easy

Don’t try to do too much, which can add to feelings of being overwhelmed. Do what you can, and postpone the rest, or ask friends and family for help with your to-do list.

5. Stay connected

Studies have shown that connecting with others helps improve mood: volunteering, getting together with friends and family, and participating in group activities, are some possibilities.

If your symptoms are interfering with your daily life, let us know. We can help evaluate your symptoms and recommend the right therapy.

Study Finds Reliable—and Drug-Free—Treatment for Anxiety

There’s no doubt that the last three or so years have raised anxiety levels among all of us. But anxiety disorders are more than just the normal reaction to stress. They are persistent feelings of fear or anxiety that regularly interfere with a person’s life.

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly 40 million Americans—or about 18 percent of us—are currently living with a diagnosable anxiety disorder.

That’s why our primary care concierge doctors in Jupiter were so pleased to learn about a study released this month, which found that mindfulness is just as effective at treating anxiety disorders as commonly prescribed medication.

What are Anxiety Disorders?

According to NIMH, anxiety disorders fall into five primary types:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by chronic anxiety, and exaggerated worry and tension, even when there is little or nothing to provoke it.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts (i.e., obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions) such as hand washing, counting, checking, or cleaning.

Panic Disorder is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear when there is no obvious reason for it, accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened.

Social Phobia (or Social Anxiety Disorder) is characterized by overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations. 

It is also possible to have more than one anxiety disorder at the same time.

Anxiety disorders are so common that this month the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended that doctors screen all adults under the age of 65 for such issues. The task force estimates that anxiety disorders affect as many as 40 percent of women and 25 percent of men at some point in their lives.

Drug-Free help

Those who suffer from anxiety disorders are often desperate for relief. The standard treatment involves the use of anti-anxiety drugs such as Lexapro and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Now, a study published this month in the journal JAMA Psychiatry found that eight weeks of intensive instruction in the practice of mindfulness meditation worked as well as Lexapro at reducing anxiety. That is, both groups showed about a 20 percent reduction in the severity of their anxiety.

Mindfulness is a type of meditation popularized more than 40 years ago by Jon Kabat-Zinn, in which practitioners learn to focus fully on what’s happening at the moment, as opposed to ruminating over the past or worrying about what might happen in the future.

The practice typically begins with breathing exercises, and full-body scans for relaxation, then learning how to let go of intrusive thoughts.

Instead of stressing over a particular thought, “you say, ‘I’m having this thought, let that go for now,’ ” lead study author Elizabeth Hoge, director of Georgetown University’s Anxiety Disorders Research Program, told Consumer Reports (CR).

“It changes the relationship people have with their own thoughts when not meditating,” she said.

The Time Issue

Critics have raised concerns with the length of time it takes not only to learn the new skill, but also the time commitment it requires.

“Telling people who are that overworked they should spend 45 minutes a day meditating is the ‘Let them eat cake’ of psychotherapy,” Joseph Arpaia, an Oregon-based psychiatrist specializing in mindfulness and meditation, wrote in an op-ed in JAMA accompanying the new study.

He says he’s found less lengthy approaches to using mindfulness to treat anxiety, including a technique he calls the “one-breath reset” to help patients become less anxious.

But Hoge told CNN that she hopes her study prods insurance companies to pay for mindfulness training.

“Usually, insurance companies are willing to pay for something when there’s research supporting its use,” she said.

“If they know it’s just as effective as the drug which they do pay for, why don’t they pay for this, too?”

Drug vs. Drug-free?

Another issue raised by Joy Harden Bradford, a psychologist in Atlanta who hosts the podcast Therapy for Black Girls, is the question of medication vs. meditation.

“The thing I would hate to have to happen is for people to pit medication against the mindfulness-based resources,” she told NPR, adding that someone with panic attacks might have a quicker reduction in symptoms with Lexapro than with waiting weeks before they fully absorb the mindfulness practices.

It’s worth noting, however, that Lexapro, like other anti-depressant drugs such as Paxil and Prozac, can take several weeks before serotonin levels in the brain begin to normalize. There’s also the issue of side effects, which are associated with any medication.

CR reports that 10 patients in the 200-participant study who were taking Lexapro dropped out due to the side effects they experienced, including insomnia, nausea, and fatigue. None of those in the mindfulness group dropped out because of side effects, although 13 patients reported increased anxiety.

Hoge told CNN that her study showed that meditation could be prescribed as an alternative for those who experience severe side effects from medication.

“Lexapro is a great drug,” she said. “I prescribe it a lot. But it’s not for everyone.”

Even Arpaia agreed in principle.

“It’s always interesting to see meditation work, and it works as well as medication,” he said.