Seasonal Affective Disorder, abbreviated as SAD, is a form of depression that occurs during the fall and winter months of the year when daylight hours are shortened. Researchers believe that a lack of sunlight can affect your circadian rhythms and cause serotonin levels in the brain to drop. Those suffering from SAD experience symptoms, such as decreased energy and moodiness, at the same time each year. Generally, these symptoms start in the fall and continue throughout the winter months.
According to Family Doctor, approximately 5%
of the population in the United States are diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder. An additional 10 to 20% of Americans may experience a milder form of SAD. This disorder affects more women than men. Although it can occur at any age, the risk of developing seasonal affective disorder decreases as you age. Also, residents in northern areas of the country are at an increased risk of developing this disorder.
Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder
Although the exact cause of SAD is unknown, researchers have found that the following factors can contribute to the development of seasonal affective disorders:
• Circadian Rhythm Disruptions
In the fall and winter, the amount of sunlight decreases. This can disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythm and lead to SAD.
• Melatonin Levels
Melatonin is responsible for sleep patterns and moods. When melatonin level in the body gets disrupted, it can cause sleeplessness
, fatigue and depression.
• Serotonin Levels
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is produced in the brain. Reduced sunlight can cause serotonin levels to decline, resulting in an increased risk of SAD.
What Are the Risk Factors?
• Family History of SAD and depression
• History of Depression
• Living in the Northern States
Because SAD has similar symptoms as clinical depression it can be difficult to get an accurate diagnosis. In order to be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder
, you must have experienced the symptoms of depression in the same season for at least two years in a row, according to WebMD. During consultation, your doctor will ask if any of your relatives suffers from SAD and will do a mental health assessment. Finally, a series of blood tests, including a CBC (complete blood count) will be done to ensure there are no underlying medical conditions.
Symptoms of SAD
• Loss of interest
• Craving carbohydrates
• Sleeping longer and waking up exhausted
• Concentration Issues
• Heaviness in the extremities
• Low Energy
Treatment Options for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Treating SAD includes light therapy, regular exercise, vitamin D supplementation and aromatherapy
. Each of these will help improve the patient’s mood and counteract the low sunlight levels experienced during the winter months. We have gathered the top ten ways to ease the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.
1. Light Therapy
or phototherapy involves sitting in front a full-spectrum light. This helps increase the production of serotonin. With the increase in serotonin levels, one is less likely to experience the symptoms of SAD. There are two types of light therapy. One is bright light treatment where you sit facing a full spectrum bright light for 30 minutes to 2 hours. The other type of light therapy is dawn simulation which involves a dim light turning on in the morning while you are still asleep and becomes brighter to mimic a sunrise.
Counseling, such as interpersonal therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy is used to help you learn how to manage your symptoms and prevent a recurrence. This therapy involves learning what triggers your symptoms and teaches you new ways to deal with them by learning new thought processes.
3. Moderate Exercise
Exercise is a great way to improve your mood. Including both cardio workouts and strength training exercises in your workout routine will help you banish the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. If possible, walk outdoors or exercise near a sunny window. Strength training exercises should be done at least twice a week.
4. St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort is a herb that has antidepressant properties which may help ease the symptoms of SAD. It can increase your light sensitivity; therefore, if you are using light therapy, you should consult your physician as the amount of time spent in front of the light may need to be decreased.
8. Practice Good Sleep Habits
Those suffering from seasonal affective disorders often have trouble going to sleep at night and waking up in the morning. Setting a regular sleep schedule can help improve the symptoms of SAD. Turn off all electronics at least an hour before bedtime and do not eat after 7 pm. It may be tempting to check your emails or work in your bedroom; however, your bedroom should only be used for sleeping.
Stress can increase the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Journaling allows you to write down your thoughts, concerns and feelings. This helps you reflect on your day and discover new ways to handle your symptoms.
10. Open your Curtains
Allowing as much sunlight in as possible can counteract the effects of SAD. Sitting in front of a window for a couple of hours will help increase your vitamin D levels naturally. Raise your blinds and pull back the curtains to increase the amount of sunlight in your home or office.
Seasonal affective disorder occurs during the fall and winter months when the amount of sunlight is limited. Furthermore, as cooler weather continues, people are less likely to spend time outdoors. This can result in depression, fatigue, weight gain and sleep disorders. By following the ten steps listed above, you can help counteract many of the symptoms of SAD.