SAD and Sleepy in Minnesota

There always seems to be a new virus going around this time of year. The symptoms consist of fatigue, low energy, down mood, no motivation, and a general desire to just sit and watch TV and eat lots of carbohydrate. I was convinced it was a virus because so many people have been complaining of these symptoms that it has got to be more than coincidence. So I asked one of my physician friends about it, but he said he wasn’t aware of any new viruses going around. It turns out that this isn’t a virus, but it may have something do with some factors to which we are all vulnerable: light and sleep.

SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, has become recognized as a depressive disorder which affects 4% to 6% of the population, though many more people may have a mild form of the disorder. It is more common among women than men. The most common type of the disorder seems to be associated with less sunlight and colder temperatures and often resolves in the spring and summer.


One of the symptoms of SAD is a craving for sweet or starchy foods, and obviously this can be even more of a problem for people who live with diabetes because of the risk of increased carbohydrate consumption and associated weight gain. People who experience only mild symptoms of SAD can often cope on their own, but, at times, treatment is necessary. Since SAD is a depressive syndrome, the typical treatments of antidepressant drugs, psychotherapy, meditation, or exercise can be useful. In most cases, as long as the severity of the symptoms is not disabling, getting some support to help you keep your exercise and eating plans on track should work until symptoms improve in the spring.

Another related topic is the issue of getting enough sleep. A couple of weeks ago, Andy Stuckey referred to not getting enough sleep in a blog entry he wrote. Katharine Davis also wrote about the effect of sleep on blood glucose control back in September. This past week, I attended a presentation on the effects of lack of sleep in children and adults in the United States. The presentation was done by author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, who wrote the book Sleepless in America. This presentation opened my eyes to some of the problems we are struggling with when we ignore the problem of not getting enough sleep.

Some of the effects of a lack of sleep can be health problems, performance problems, relationship issues, and damage to our sense of happiness. As my wife and I were listening, it occurred to me that this may be a particular problem for some of the adolescents I see. These kids are not only having trouble managing their diabetes but, because their blood glucose levels are out of control, they are probably getting up several times a night to go to the bathroom, which obviously disrupts their sleep. Sleep deprivation can lead to a lack of energy and motivation in school, and this in turn makes being motivated to manage your diabetes a real struggle.

I don’t think it is typical of health-care professionals to ask many questions about a person’s sleep habits, and by ignoring this topic we are ignoring a critical aspect of self-care. I don’t just want to blame health-care professionals, though, because many people only prioritize sleep when they are exhausted. So, take a look at your sleep habits. If you are not getting enough sleep, adjust your schedule, take a nap, and plan for a regular pattern of sleep so you don’t have to readjust to a new schedule every other day. You can read more about how to do this in the book Sleepless in America.

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Joe Nelson: Joe is a psychotherapist in private practice in Minnesota, where he specializes in the psychology of chronic disease and sexual problems and works with couples, families, children, and teens. He has been a Licensed Psychologist since 1985 and has earned a master’s degree from St. Mary’s College Winona, a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota, and an associate’s degree in human services from the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

Joe has worked with troubled youth in Chicago and Minnesota and on a special project on Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. He was the first social worker hired by an affiliate of the American Diabetes Association. He worked at the International Diabetes Center for 20 years, directing psychological services there for 12 years. A Certified Sex Therapist, Joe co-developed the Sexual Health Center at Park Nicollet Clinic.

Having practiced meditation for over 30 years, Joe offers instruction in mindfulness-based meditation to patients in groups and as individuals. Joe is married, has a 23-year-old daughter, and enjoys scuba diving, motorcycling, golf, and being outdoors doing almost anything.

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