Individuals who feel depressed during the winter months when the amount of sunlight is at its minimum may have what is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
According to Mental Health America, “SAD is a mood disorder associated with depression and related to seasonal variations of light. SAD affects half a million people every winter between September and April, peaking in December, January, and February. The ‘Winter Blues,’ a milder form of SAD, may affect even more people.”
Despite the common assumption only individuals living in the northern hemisphere experience symptoms of depression with the season change, the condition is also found in the southern hemisphere. It is considered uncommon in people who live within 30 degrees latitude of the equator though.
What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The exact cause of SAD isn’t known, states the Mayo Clinic, though experts feel genetics, age and the chemical makeup of the body all play a role.
Several specific factors are thought to be linked to seasonal affective disorder, including a disruption of the body’s internal clock which indicates when it is time to sleep and when it is time to be awake. Changes in daylight can upset this clock, better known as the body’s circadian rhythm.
The exact link between daylight and seasonal affective disorder has never been pinpointed, however, but a lack of sunlight can cause a number of health changes which experts feel influences SAD. Without regular exposure to sunlight, melatonin and serotonin levels can drop, triggering feelings of depression.
Who is most at risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Approximately 3 of 4 SAD sufferers are women, although men with the condition tend to have more severe symptoms. Individuals with a family history of depression, those who live the furthest away from the equator, and individuals who already have a form of depression, are also at a high risk for developing seasonal affective disorder.
What are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
One of the primary symptoms of seasonal affective disorder is that it comes and goes around the same time of year. The other symptoms, according to the National Library of Medicine, are similar as in other forms of depression. Because individuals who experience SAD cannot be definitively tested for it, it is important to be aware of the following symptoms of the disease.
- Social withdrawal
- Loss of interest in hobbies
- Increased sleep
- Weight gain with increased appetite
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Loss of libido
- Mood changes
Most people experience SAD during the winter months; however, there are some individuals who experience this mood disorder during the spring and summer months as well, especially if they spend most of the time indoors at home or office.
What are the treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The most beneficial therapy for people suffering from SAD is phototherapy, and approximately 85 percent of SAD cases benefit from exposure to light therapy.
In order for the treatment to work, however, patients must be exposed to light which is ten times the intensity of normal lighting in a house for a period of four hours a day.
Other forms of treatment include:
- Increase in outdoor activities
- Antidepressant medications
- Practicing good sleep and eating habits
- Increasing or changing up an exercise routine
- Switching to full spectrum light bulbs both at home and at the office