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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and How it Affects COPD Patients

Oct 20, 2020 3:33:34 PM / by Daniel Seter

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and How it Affects COPD Patients

For most people, the beginning of fall is the perfect time to get out and enjoy the changing colors, the cool weather, and begin preparing for the holidays ahead. However, for some, the change of seasons is not always a positive thing. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a condition that affects about 5 percent of U.S. adults each year and it’s associated with depressive episodes that correlate with the change of seasons.

 

While seasonal affective disorder isn’t exactly a household name, it can have potentially serious side-effects for anyone who experiences it. SAD isn’t simply a change of mood, it’s actually a type of major depressive disorder (MDD). What this means is that in order to be diagnosed with SAD, a patient needs to exhibit similar symptoms to major depression. This includes symptoms such as feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, low energy, and loss of interest.

 

Another important thing to note is that people who are already diagnosed with a chronic illness such as COPD are at a higher risk of experiencing SAD, and it may have an effect on how you manage SAD as well. In this post, we’re going to discuss everything you need to know about treating, coping with, and preventing seasonal affective disorder if you have COPD or another debilitating lung condition. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comment section or consult your doctor.

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What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

SAD is a mental health condition that’s characterized by depressive episodes that change with the seasons. Most often, the symptoms increase in the fall and winter and decrease in the spring and the summer. This is because the reduced sunlight associated with fall and winter causes disruptions in your body’s natural circadian rhythm which can lead to feelings of depression. In rare instances, however, someone may experience SAD during the spring or summer months.

 

Man sitting against wall with arms folded.

Seasonal affective disorder can be a debilitating condition. It’s not uncommon for someone to experience SAD and be unaware that their depressive episodes are linked to the seasons or they may believe that everyone experiences depression in the fall or winter. While it is true that the change of seasons affects us all in some way, it’s uncommon for it to lead to disruptions in your daily life such as chronic fatigue, difficulty concentrating, or feelings of hopelessness.

 

According to a study done by the University of Copenhagen, people who contract SAD show differences in the way that they regulate the neurotransmitter serotonin which has a significant effect on your mood. The researchers studied both SAD patients and healthy patients and found that the former had higher levels of the serotonin transporter (SERT) which leads to a greater removal of serotonin in the body. The SAD patients had an average of 5% higher SERT levels in the winter months as opposed to healthy patients who showed no significant change.

 

Serotonin pathways in the brain.

Unfortunately, mental health conditions like SAD are a little more complicated than an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. There are millions of chemical reactions that occur in the brain at any given moment, all of which culminate to create your overall feelings and mood. So, it’s unlikely that increasing serotonin levels will be the end all be all solution. This is why mental health disorders are often treated with a variety of methods like medication, exercise, therapy sessions, and more.

 

While rare, summer and spring SAD is still very much a reality. However, while it’s normally caused by shorter days, colder weather, and less sunlight in the winter, summer SAD is caused by the opposite — longer and hotter days. Another factor involved is summer and spring allergies which can last many months and keep people relegated to their homes.

 

Man holding his head

 

One common occurrence in people with summer SAD is that they get too little sleep. Longer daylight hours and shorter nights means that many people are getting less sleep than they should be getting. To mediate this, your doctor may offer a revised sleep schedule, or he/she may prescribe you melatonin supplements that make up for your body’s low supply.

 

What Are the Symptoms of SAD?

SAD symptoms may vary from person to person and they can range in severity from mild to severe. Possibly the most common symptom of SAD is feeling unmotivated, demoralized, or hopeless. We’ve all had days where we feel like we don’t have the strength to do something productive, but for someone with SAD, these feelings may persist over the course of several weeks or months.

 

Symptoms of SAD

Another symptom of SAD is difficulty sleeping and/or feelings of restlessness or fatigue after waking up in the morning. A lot of the time, sleeping difficulties are attributed to high anxiety or chronic pain which tend to be common in COPD patients. Sleeping problems should be dealt with sooner rather than later because long-term sleep deprivation can lead to mood changes, a weakened immune system, an increased risk of heart disease, and many other negative health effects

 

Symptoms of SAD

One final symptom of seasonal affective disorder is feeling uninterested in things that you used to enjoy. Everyone has hobbies that they like to pursue. These hobbies help us feel complete and keep our minds off of anything negative that we might be experiencing in our lives. But when you have SAD, these hobbies can feel more like a chore rather than a relaxing activity.

 

What Are the Causes of SAD?

As aforementioned, the causes of SAD are complex and it’s still heavily debated as to what the primary causal factor of SAD is. Thus far, however, scientific research has led us to believe that there are three factors that contribute to the onset of seasonal affective disorder: poor regulation of the neurotransmitter serotonin, an overproduction of melatonin, and low vitamin D production.

 

What Are the Risk Factors of SAD?

Since one of the major causes of SAD is a lack of sunlight, it goes without saying that where you live has a significant impact on whether or not you will contract it. Since the amount of winter daylight decreases the farther you are away from the equator, you’re more likely to experience SAD if you’re at least 30 degrees north or south. 

 

Anxiety and depression

 

Genetics also plays a role in seasonal affective disorder. If you have parents who have a history of depression or high anxiety, you might be at higher risk of experiencing SAD or other major depressive disorders. 

 

How Are SAD and COPD Connected?

COPD and SAD are not directly related. In other words, just because you have a chronic respiratory disease does not necessarily mean you will develop SAD or any type of depression for that matter. However, due to the symptoms associated with these conditions, it can be very difficult to cope with both COPD and SAD at the same time. It can also be difficult for doctors to diagnose SAD in COPD patients because these two conditions share many symptoms.

 

Symptoms of COPD

 

COPD is a chronic and debilitating lung condition that’s primarily caused by cigarette smoking. It’s characterized by trouble breathing, fatigue, and increased mucus production. COPD is a progressive disease meaning it gets worse over time and patients may experience “exacerbations,” a period of time where COPD symptoms suddenly get worse. A carefully planned treatment regime is essential for managing COPD.

 

According to the International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, depression is common among COPD patients. Around 40% have either clinical depression or severe depressive symptoms. In addition to this, many people with COPD experience anxiety which tends to get worse as respiratory symptoms progress. 

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How Should a COPD Patient Cope with SAD?

The best way for COPD patients to cope with SAD is to manage the symptoms of COPD. More often than not, COPD patients develop a sense of doom and gloom when they realize that their symptoms are getting worse instead of better. Rather than letting these thoughts take control, take some time to evaluate how you’re approaching your disease, and be open about what you’re experiencing with close friends and family members.

 

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation is paramount when it comes to managing respiratory symptoms such as breathlessness, fatigue, and chest pain. Not only does pulmonary rehabilitation strengthen the lungs, but it improves the strength of every muscle in the body. And since muscle strength is a key factor in preventing CO2 retention, it also plays an important role in preventing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

 

Pulmonary rehab

One of the reasons that it’s so difficult to maintain a pulmonary rehabilitation routine throughout the fall and winter is because the weather can prevent us from getting outside. Most people prefer exercising outdoors, but if you have COPD, cold weather can exacerbate your symptoms. So if this sounds like you, be sure to plan your pulmonary rehabilitation activities indoors. A study from Harvard found that just 35 minutes of low- or high-intensity exercise is linked to reduced odds of depression.

 

Maintain a Healthy Diet

Many people are surprised to find that their diet has an immense impact on the health of their lungs, and by proxy, their mental health as well. While a “healthy diet” looks different for just about everyone, your doctor has likely set you up with a dietary regime that’s high in fiber, healthy fats, and protein. This is pretty standard for COPD patients, but it may vary slightly depending on your situation.

Fruits and vegetables

One way to maintain a healthy diet in the fall and winter is to have your groceries delivered. Rather than having to go out in the cold and search the store for everything you need, you can take your time and select food online that meets your dietary needs. This is also a great way to avoid the temptation of buying food that doesn’t meet your COPD treatment plan.

 

Be Open With Your Doctor

It’s not always easy being open and honest about the things you’re feeling or experiencing. But when it comes to something as serious and debilitating as seasonal depression it’s important to find some way to let others know about it. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking directly to a health professional, you can talk to a friend or loved one who can contact them for you. 

 

Doctor talking with patient

 

One of the most effective ways of treating seasonal affective disorder is through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This is a type of psychotherapy that aims to identify and correct habits that can lead to a negative state of mind. CBT has a wide range of uses including addiction prevention, stress reduction, depression prevention, and learning techniques to cope with chronic conditions like COPD.

 

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Another treatment your doctor may prescribe to treat SAD is light therapy, also known as phototherapy. Just like this sounds, it’s a type of therapy that exposes you to light that’s designed to mimic sunlight. Typically, you will be told to use this device right when you get up or periodically throughout the day. You should notice your mood improving over the course of several days or weeks.

Sunlight

Last but certainly not least, you may be prescribed medication for SAD. Antidepressants like bupropion are designed to prevent depressive episodes in people with a variety of different conditions. Keep in mind that there are always side-effects with antidepressants and they may interact poorly with your respiratory symptoms, so be sure to use them only as your doctor prescribes.

 

Take on More Responsibilities

One of the worst symptoms of depressive disorders like SAD is that they make it feel like it’s impossible to take on the challenges of the day. Whether we’re faced with a difficult family matter or something pertaining to our disease, it’s hard to know where to begin if you can’t find the motivation to do it.

 

Woman cleaning a sink

The best way to combat this is to take on more responsibilities. It doesn’t matter how small these responsibilities are. Even something as simple as washing a few dishes or folding a few pairs of clothes is enough to increase your motivation and reassure yourself that you can overcome any challenges that you may be facing.

 

Conclusion

Unsurprisingly, October is depression awareness month. It’s a time when days become shorter, the weather starts to cool down, and people start to spend more time inside. It’s also a time when depressive symptoms tend to get worse, often resulting in seasonal affective disorder. People with chronic illnesses, COPD in particular, are at a higher risk of experiencing this condition and they’re more likely to experience serious symptoms as a result.

 

Ultimately, the best way for COPD patients to cope with the change of seasons is to not lose sight of their treatment plan. While the weather is cooling down and days are getting shorter, it’s just as important to focus on your exercise routine, diet, and supplemental oxygen therapy. It’s also important to maintain open lines of communication with friends, family, and your doctor and avoid social isolation at all costs. 

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If you’re having trouble maintaining your supplemental oxygen therapy routine through the change of seasons, you may want to consider upgrading your oxygen tank to a portable oxygen concentrator. Unlike tanks, portable oxygen concentrators like the Caire FreeStyle Comfort and Inogen One G5 allow you to go anywhere you want without restraint. For more information about portable oxygen costs or to have your questions answered, don’t hesitate to reach out to our respiratory specialists at 1-800-946-1201.

Topics: COPD, Medication and Treatment, Respiratory Resource Center, diet, oxygen therapy, wellness goals, exercise, COPD education, COPD management, wellness for seniors, Mental heath

Daniel Seter

Written by Daniel Seter