Don't feel bad if you have ever suffered, or are suffering, from a bout of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). You have plenty of company. Well, let’s rephrase that: feeling bad does go with the SAD territory, and it might even seem unavoidable. Feeling bad, depressed, or just plain down in the dumps for an extended period of time every year is a very real thing for many people, and there’s nothing amusing or uplifting about it.
SAD is real condition – not a figment of the imagination – that can put a serious crimp in your quality of life. But it also a health-related problem that can be remedied or at least alleviated. Also referred to as seasonal depression, per webmd.com, SAD is a disorder that affects one’s mood during certain times of the year, possibly year after year.
Generally, SAD can start in the fall or early winter – it can even overlap the holiday season, as many of us know all too well – lasting through to spring or even into early summer. Obviously, we are not talking a span of just days or even weeks here. Think months at a time. Per aafp.org (American Academy of Family Physicians), about 4-6 percent of people might suffer from winter depression (SAD), while another 10 to 20 percent might have a mild version.
A rarer form of SAD encompasses much of the summer, perhaps beginning in late spring and continuing past Labor Day – a condition known as – you might have guessed it – “summer depression.”
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The short answer to that question is that no one is really sure, although there are some science-based theories. Per webmd.com, some scientists believe that there are certain hormones well entrenched in the brain that trigger attitude-linked changes in one’s mood at certain times of the year. A corollary to that hypothesis is that because there is a lack of sunshine – at least compared to the late spring and summer months – a circumstance that inhibits the brain’s production of serotonin, a chemical in the brain’s pathways that control mood. If the brain-cell pathways affecting mood aren’t functioning optimally, you might experience feelings of depression as well as fatigue and even some weight gain.
Per Mayo Clinic, following are some other factors that appear related to SAD:
- Biological clock/circadian rhythm. This brings us back to the relative lack of sunshine during the winter months; except in this case, the reduced exposure to sunlight might be disrupting your body’s internal clock, thus producing feelings of depression.
- Melatonin levels. Just like the time of year can affect your body’s production of the chemical serotonin, it can also disrupt the body’s melatonin level, referring to the chemical that plays an instrumental role in regulating your sleep patterns and mood.
- Family history. It appears there is nothing conclusive in this regard, although health experts have speculated that people with SAD might be more likely to have blood relatives with similar seasonal symptoms such as depression.
- Having major depression or bipolar disorder. Related depression symptoms can possibly worsen during the SAD season.
- Geographical location of residence. SAD appears to be more common in people the farther they live from the equator. This is likely due to the fact that the farther you live from the equator, the lesser the amount of sunlight you receive during the winter months.
In addition to the feelings of depression, fatigue, and weight gain mentioned earlier, following are some other wintertime SAD symptoms:
- Problems concentrating
- Increased appetite
- Heightened desire to be left alone
- Greater need for sleep
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Summer SAD symptoms can include less appetite, weight loss, and sleep issues.
Diagnosing and Treating SAD
If you believe you might be suffering from SAD, it’s time to have a discussion with your physician or a mental health care professional – don’t go down this path alone. These health professionals can conduct a thorough evaluation to see if you have Seasonal Affective Disorder or are suffering form some other condition, although even then the diagnosis might not be conclusive. Such an evaluation can include a physical exam, lab tests, a psychological exam, or they might apply criteria listed for seasonal depressive episodes as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), as suggested at mayoclinic.org.
In terms of treatment, one procedure that has shown some success is light therapy. This is a form of treatment in which you sit in front of a light box or wear a light visor on your head for 30 minutes a day in fall and winter, when you’re more likely to be depressed. This helps compensate for the relative lack of sunlight during those months.
Other things you can do:
- Brighten up your environment. Open the blinds. Remove obstacles such as tree branches blocking the sun’s rays from your windows. Add skylights. Sit closer to bright windows while at home or the office.
- Get outdoors. Duh. Bundle up if you have to. The earlier in the day you do this, the better.
- Exercise regularly. By itself, this will help relieve stress or anxiety, both of which can play into heightening SAD symptoms.
- Alternative medicines. Certain herbal remedies and nutritional supplements can help, per mayoclinic.org. But be sure to discuss this with your physician, especially if you are on prescription medicines – be sure to check for any possible interactions and/or side effects.