Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, is depression that is triggered by the changes in seasons. It is most common during fall through winter, but can also occur during the spring or early summer. SAD goes beyond the “winter blues.” Symptoms include feeling depressed and moody, having low dips in energy, and even thoughts of suicide. However, there are treatment options available for people who suffer from SAD.
Who Does SAD Affect?
Seasonal Affective Disorder affects more females than males. Statistically, women are at higher risk for developing depression. SAD is believed to affect 1-6 percent of Americans, usually between 20 and 30 years old. Individuals experiencing winter-onset SAD report excessive eating, weight gain, feeling sluggish, having low energy, and oversleeping. Symptoms of summer-onset SAD include decreased appetite, weight loss, anxiety, and insomnia. In some people with bipolar disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder can induce mania in the warmer months and deep depression in the colder months.
Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder
While no one cause of SAD has been proven, several factors can come into play. Scientists believe SAD is caused more by the changes in light exposure than the variations of temperature.
- Circadian Rhythm (Internal Biological Clock): Your circadian rhythm is your sleep/wake cycle. The amount of exposure to natural light we receive every day affects our internal clock. When it’s dark, your eyes send a signal to your brain that it is time to feel tired. Then, your brain releases melatonin to make your body tired. Scientists recommend you turn electronics off at least an hour before turning in, as the blue light can inhibit melatonin production.
- Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone that regulates our sleep cycle. Light, as well as our circadian rhythm, affect our melatonin levels. Typically, melatonin levels rise when the sun goes down. So when the weather is dreary and the days are shorter, your body may produce melatonin earlier in the day than when there is more natural light available. This can throw off your sleep schedule, and make you feel tired, less energized and slow.
- Serotonin: The decreased amount of sunlight can also cause a drop in serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects mood. Decreased serotonin can trigger disturbing instances of depression, anxiety, and even obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder
1. Exposure to Natural Light
Simply getting out and absorbing more natural light while it occurs can help alleviate some symptoms of SAD. Try taking a walk during the day to increase your light exposure and your levels of serotonin.
2. Light Therapy
Doctors sometimes recommend phototherapy when the symptoms of SAD interfere with the person’s daily routine. Phototherapy involves the participant sitting in front of a light, specifically designed for treating SAD, for 30 to 90 minutes each day. Exposure during the morning hours tend to show the best results. You can easily purchase SAD lamps from the web. This therapy restores circadian rhythm and brain chemistry balance.
In order to raise serotonin levels, physicians may prescribe an antidepressant. The success rate of antidepressants is higher if started before the symptoms start occurring. Patients on a medication regime for Seasonal Affective Disorder would start taking the antidepressant daily before SAD season until springtime.
Your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Talk to your doctor if you think you may suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. If you have any questions or concerns, comment below and your question may be the topic of our next post!
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Hi, i haven’t had any depression symptoms but my head throbs and I can’t think straight. Could that be a symptom?
I notice that happens when the weather changes.
Hi Vicky, SAD is more of a mood disorder, but I would definitely recommend talking to your doctor about your seasonal headaches if they interfere with your daily life!
SAD isn’t easy to deal with.