Seasonal Affective Disorder
Written by: Nicole Stancil
It’s probable that you know someone who “struggles” with winter, or that you are one of those people yourself. Many people feel a difference in energy levels during these darker months, and some may notice a change in general outlook on life as well. While sometimes it’s easy to just blame the stress of the holidays or bad weather, sometimes there’s something deeper going on, more than just “winter blues.”
Seasonal Affective Disorder describes a collection of symptoms that result from less sunlight (and therefore less Vitamin D) that occur in the darker months of the year. Basically, it’s a specific type of depression that results from a lack of or change in sunlight.
Signs and symptoms of SAD may include:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having low energy
- Having problems with sleeping, oversleeping
- Experiencing changes in your appetite (especially craving carbohydrate-filled foods) or weight (particularly weight gain)
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
When to see a doctor: It’s normal to have some days when you feel down. But if you feel down for days at a time and you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, see your doctor. This is especially important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed, you turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation, or you feel hopeless or think about suicide.
If you have bipolar disorder or it runs in your family: The treatment for SAD can exacerbate certain symptoms of bipolar disorder so it’s important for your doctor to know so they can make informed decisions about your care.
Light Therapy (Phototherapy):
In light therapy, also called phototherapy, you sit a few feet from a special light box so that you’re exposed to bright light within the first hour of waking up each day. Light therapy mimics natural outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. Light therapy is one of the first line treatments for fall-onset SAD. It generally starts working in a few days to a few weeks and causes few side effects. Research on light therapy is limited, but it appears to be effective for most people in relieving SAD symptoms. Before you purchase a light box, talk with your doctor about the best one for you, and familiarize yourself with the variety of features and options so that you buy a high-quality product that’s safe and effective. Also ask your doctor about how and when to use the light box.
Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, is an option to treat SAD. A type of psychotherapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy can help you:
- Identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that may be making you feel worse
- Learn healthy ways to cope with SAD, especially with reducing avoidance behavior and scheduling activities
- Learn how to manage stress
Life Style Changes:
- Make your environment sunnier and brighter. Open blinds, trim tree branches that block sunlight or add skylights to your home. Sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office.
- Get outside. Take a long walk, eat lunch at a nearby park, or simply sit on a bench and soak up the sun. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help — especially if you spend some time outside within two hours of getting up in the morning.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise and other types of physical activity help relieve stress and anxiety, both of which can increase SAD symptoms. Being more fit can make you feel better about yourself, too, which can lift your mood.
- Some people with SAD benefit from antidepressant treatment, especially if symptoms are severe. An extended-release version of the antidepressant bupropion (Wellbutrin XL, Aplenzin) may help prevent depressive episodes in people with a history of SAD. Other antidepressants also may commonly be used to treat SAD. Your doctor may recommend starting treatment with an antidepressant before your symptoms typically begin each year. He or she may also recommend that you continue to take the antidepressant beyond the time your symptoms normally go away. Keep in mind that it may take several weeks to notice full benefits from an antidepressant. In addition, you may have to try different medications before you find one that works well for you and has the fewest side effects.
Seasonal affective disorder is diagnosed more often in women than in men and occurs more frequently in younger adults than in older adults.
Factors that may increase your risk of seasonal affective disorder include:
- Family history. People with SAD may be more likely to have blood relatives with SAD or another form of depression.
- Having major depression or bipolar disorder. Symptoms of depression may worsen seasonally if you have one of these conditions.
- Living far from the equator. SAD appears to be more common among people who live far north or south of the equator. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter and longer days during the summer months.
Further recommended reading on Vitamin D deficiency: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-much-vitamin-d-to-take