Are you feeling under the weather?

Now that daylight savings is over and the sun is setting before 5 p.m., as many as 1 in 5 New Jersey residents may be experiencing feelings of sadness and depression.

It could be seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

Debra Wentz, CEO and president of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, NJAMHAA, said this diagnosable mental health disorder has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain that’s prompted by the lack of sunlight in winter.

“As seasons change, most people experience a shift in their biological internal clock, or circadian rhythm, that can cause them to get out of step with their daily schedule. Certain individuals may experience declines in energy, cheerfulness, creativity or productivity during the dark days of winter,” she said.

Symptoms of SAD are very similar to those of depression and may include “fatigue, social withdrawal, lack of interest in your normal activities, difficulty getting out of bed," she said.

She noted you may also experience “having to force yourself to perform necessary chores, difficulty concentrating, reduced sex drive.”

In addition, there may also be feelings of sadness and irritability or apathy, and it may be hard to stay awake.

“Those who suffer with seasonal affective disorder may also experience an insatiable appetite for carbohydrates, but this will usually fade when spring arrives and there is more sunlight during the day,” she said.

So is there any treatment for SAD?

“The most common treatment is exposure to high intensity artificial light up to several hours a day. This light strives to simulate the longer days of summer,” she said.

Wentz pointed out researchers have determined bright light does make a difference to our brain chemistry, although the exact means by which sufferers are affected isn’t known yet.

She noted how much light therapy a person may need, and what time of day is best may vary.

“There are individual differences but usually a half hour treatment at 10,000 LUX, or an hour at 5,000 LUX is the average,” she said.

Wentz says there are other coping mechanisms as well.

“It could include planning a winter vacation, moving closer to the equator, and also cognitive behavioral therapy can help change negative thoughts and behaviors,” she said.

“Another thing that anyone who’s suffering from SAD should do is have a high protein, low carbohydrate diet and regular exercise.”

Wentz stressed anyone can self-diagnose and buy a light box, but “since there could be other things going on, other illness factors at play, it is wiser to seek the guidance of a qualified medical or mental health practitioner in both the diagnosis and treatment of seasonal affective disorder ... because SAD could be confused with severe depression or bipolar disorder.”

Sign up for the WPG Talk Radio 104.1 Newsletter

Get South Jersey news and information e-mailed to you every week.