By Wayne J. Reynolds, D.O., FAAFP
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder (also called SAD) is a type of depression. While the exact causes of this condition are unknown, SAD occurs in seasons of low light. The most common form of SAD is called winter-onset depression with symptoms beginning in late fall and lasting through early summer.
Up to half a million people in the U.S. may have winter-onset depression. Another 10% to 20% may experience mild SAD.Who’s at Risk?
Factors contributing to seasonal affective disorder (SAD) may include genetics and age.
SAD is most common in younger people and women. It usually doesn’t start in people younger than 20 years old and the risk of SAD decrease with age. Studies also show SAD is found more often in people living in northern states where winters are longer and harsher.
Depression is common among families and so is SAD. Our genes help determine how chemical reactions in our bodies are managed. People with SAD produce more of a sleeping chemical in their brains than other people. This disrupts their internal clock and leads to symptoms similar to hibernation—sleepiness, irritability, increased appetite and more. If you have had episodes of depression that clearly have an onset in fall or winter followed by remission of symptoms in the spring or summer, you may have SAD.
Symptoms of SAD
Not everyone who has SAD experiences the same symptoms. Some common symptoms are:
Appetite change, especially cravings for sweet or starchy foods
Irritability and anxiety
Loss of interest in the activities once enjoyed
Light therapy is one option for treating winter depression, because increased exposure to light can improve symptoms. Light therapy is given using a specially made light box, and is most effective if given in the morning. Generally, light therapy takes about 30 minutes each day throughout the fall and winter. When used properly, light therapy seems to have very few side effects. The intensity –or brightness of the light and required exposure should be arrived at with your health care provider. Tanning beds should not be used to treat SAD. The light sources in tanning beds are high in ultraviolet (UV) rays, which harm both your eyes and your skin.
Other therapies available for winter depression include antidepressants, and some behavioral changes like increased exercise to help minimize symptoms.
Dealing with SAD
Acknowledge it. If you have experienced SAD, you likely know it’s an annual happening. By knowing your own body patterns, you’ll be better prepared to handle the challenges.
Treat it. Most people can treat SAD with light lamps, offering a great option to drugs. Since SAD is a kind of depression, which can be a very serious condition, prescriptions can offer relief for more serious cases.
Simplify. The chaos and pressures of the holidays can add to feelings of helplessness or hopelessness experienced in winter. Consider simplifying holiday celebrations that will take some of the stress off and add to good feelings.
Look on the brighter side. Open blinds, add skylights, and trim tree branches that block sunlight. Sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office. Be sure to catch every ray of sun possible. Enjoy outside exercise and the beauty of winter, even on colder days by bundling up and warming up muscles properly.
Take a break. Consider planning a warm climate (and sun filled) vacation during this time of year. It will give you something to look forward to and add light to your winter.
Step in the right direction. Find ways to continue your exercise regime, even during the dark, cold days of winter. Exercise is a great equalizer known for contributing to good feelings, sleep patterns, and fitness—all important for mental well-being.
If you think you have SAD
There is hope and you don’t have to power through it. Work with your physician to develop your plan for feeling better during an exciting and beautiful time of the year.