Seasonal Affective Disorder

Winter’s cold weather and snow can make anyone feel unmotivated and lethargic. However, for a few people, the winter season can mean dealing with real depression and feelings of unhappiness. The medical term for this condition is Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short. Read on to learn more about SAD and what you can do to combat it. 

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD is a type of depression that only comes on during a particular season of the year. For most, it occurs during the winter months. Individuals are more likely to be diagnosed with SAD if they have experienced symptoms of this type of depression for two or more years in a row. Some symptoms of SAD include:

  • Having low energy
  • Hypersomnia (Sleeping too much during the day, or in general)
  • Overeating
  • Weight gain
  • Craving for carbohydrates
  • Social withdrawal (You feel like “hibernating”)

It is important to note that Seasonal Affective Disorder and general depression are different. General depression will not go away with the change of seasons. Some signs of general depression are: 

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having low energy
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having problems with sleep
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

What causes SAD?

While the cause of SAD is unknown, NIMH reported that there are some biological clues which include:

  • People with SAD may have trouble regulating one of the key neurotransmitters involved in mood, serotonin. One study found that people with SAD have 5 percent more serotonin transporter protein in winter months than summer months. Higher serotonin transporter protein leaves less serotonin available at the synapse because the function of the transporter is to recycle neurotransmitter back into the pre-synaptic neuron.
  • People with SAD may overproduce the hormone melatonin. Darkness increases production of melatonin, which regulates sleep. As winter days become shorter, melatonin production increases, leaving people with SAD to feel sleepier and more lethargic, often with delayed circadian rhythms.
  • People with SAD also may produce less Vitamin D. Vitamin D is believed to play a role in serotonin activity. Vitamin D insufficiency may be associated with clinically significant depression symptoms.

How do you treat SAD?

Just like general depression, SAD can be treated with antidepressant medication that is prescribed by your doctor. However, there have been several studies showing that light therapy can be extremely beneficial. 

Light therapy has been a mainstay of treatment for SAD since the 1980s. The idea behind light therapy is to replace the diminished sunshine of the fall and winter months using daily exposure to bright, artificial light. Symptoms of SAD may be relieved by sitting in front of a light box first thing in the morning, on a daily basis from the early fall until spring. Most typically, light boxes filter out the ultraviolet rays and require 20-60 minutes of exposure to 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light, an amount that is about 20 times greater than ordinary indoor lighting.

According to Harvard Medical School, light therapy works by stimulating cells in the retina thatconnect to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that helps control circadian rhythms. Activating the hypothalamus at a certain time every day can restore a normal circadian rhythm and thus banish seasonal symptoms.

If you, or someone you know, is experience signs and symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, it can be beneficial to talk to a doctor to learn how it can be treated. If you do not have a primary care physician, Firelands Physician Group has a number of compassionate physicians available. You can talk to your primary care doctor about seeing a specialist like Anupam Jha, MD, psychiatrist with Firelands Physician Group. A psychiatrist specializes in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness, like SAD or general depression.