Seasonal Affective Disorder: An Overview

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Feeling down recently? 

You are not the only one. As we head into colder weather and shorter days, it is common to feel isolated and depressed. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression where people experience recurrent depressive symptoms at the same time each year, most commonly in the winter.

Not sure if what you’re feeling is depression? Common signs of depression are:

  • Feeling fatigued, numb or sad for most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having problems with sleeping, such as:
    • Falling or staying asleep
    • Interrupted sleep
    • Staying awake or oversleeping
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Feelings of hopelessness and guilt
  • Thoughts of suicide or death

Winter-pattern SAD is especially associated with oversleeping and overeating — you may feel like you are “hibernating.” Summer-pattern SAD may include insomnia, poor appetite and increased anxiety.

You should see a doctor if you are feeling these symptoms for more than a few days at a time and/or if they are impacting your life. Regardless of how well you may fit into these symptoms, if your wellbeing and health are being disrupted then please seek help. If you find yourself in a crisis, dial the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. They are available 24/7.

The exact cause of SAD is unclear, however several factors have been implicated. The main one is the reduced amount of sunlight, which can impact your circadian rhythm and your body’s serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, or a brain chemical, that helps to regulate mood. A lack of sunlight can also cause deficits in vitamin D which is believed to help promote serotonin activity. The change in seasons can also disrupt your body’s melatonin. Depression in general can be a genetically predisposed illness and has been linked to multiple things like brain injury and reduced gut health.

Treatment for SAD can involve a few things. You may be recommended for psychotherapy or antidepressants. One beneficial thing can be light therapy, which exposes you to light through a light box daily. This can help regulate your circadian rhythm and make up for the diminished sunlight. You can also try to increase your intake of vitamin D, but current studies have mixed findings on its effectiveness. Practicing good sleep hygiene by limiting electronic use before bed and setting a consistent sleep time is also highly helpful in treating depression, as well as getting regular physical activity.

Don’t let depression hold you back from your life. Seek help, talk to a friend and know that you are not alone.