Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – More than the Winter Blues
Daylight savings time ends on the first Sunday each November, an abrupt close to the longer nights of bright summer light. This is quite a dramatic change for most, one that can interrupt sleeping patterns, zap energy and impart an overall sense of malaise. While most of us adapt healthfully to the these changes, roughly a half a million Americans suffer from a condition more severe and often overlooked, called Seasonal Affective Disorder, referred to as SAD.
The main culprit of SAD is the lower level of natural sunlight we are exposed to in the fall and winter. Less natural light can create dips in serotonin (a neurotransmitter that regulates mood), disruptions in circadian rhythms (your body’s internal clock) and alterations in melatonin (a hormone associated with both mood and sleep).
SAD is a mood disorder that affects an individual the same time each year, usually starting when the weather becomes colder. People with SAD feel depressed during the shorter days of winter and more cheerful and energetic during the longer days of spring and summer. While it is common for many people to experience the “winter blues” at some point, SAD can be far more serious and detrimental to physical & mental health, work performance and relationships. SAD symptoms fall into the same criteria necessary for a diagnosis of major depression disorder. These symptoms include:
- Depressed mood
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Lack of energy (lethargy)
- Increased agitation or anxiety
- Difficulty with concentration
- Changes in sleep
- Changes in appetite
- Loss of pleasure in activities one previously enjoyed
- Increased aches and pains
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Talk to a medical professional if you or someone you love is exhibiting any of these symptoms. Often people with SAD first go to their primary care doctor because they aren’t feeling well or not feeling like “themselves”. Diagnostic tests, such as blood tests to check your vitamin D levels or a complete blood panel, can rule out other potential causes of these symptoms.
Rates of SAD vary depending on where you live. About 9 percent of Americans who live near the Canadian border experience SAD symptoms, compared to just 1.5 percent of people in Florida. Fortunately, SAD can be treated. Here are some of the most common treatments for SAD:
- Sunlight: Exposing yourself to natural light will help boost serotonin production and your overall mood. Get out for some fresh air and daily walks!
- Light therapy: The current standard of care for SAD, light therapy replicates natural light with light boxes, which use white fluorescent bulbs to mimic sunlight. Light therapy can be particularly helpful in regulating the release of melatonin, which increases when the sun goes down.
- Exercise: A strong exercise-mental health connection is particularly important for those with depression and anxiety.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): Cognitive-behavioral therapy is clinically proven to be extremely beneficial for all types of depression. Medication can also be prescribed if more conservative treatments are not effective.
Embracing a healthy lifestyle, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, staying active and avoiding overindulging in starchy or sweet foods can help ward off those winter blues and ensure a happier, healthier, and more hopeful journey through the changing seasons.