Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): It's More Than Just The BluesHibernation...who's got time for that? With calendars packed to the max, never-ending errands to run, and social calendars galore, reality just doesn’t leave space to hibernate. But for some of us, that's all we can think about. Although evolutionarily there were benefits to this behavior, times have changed. Unfortunately for some, our bodies haven't kept up.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, otherwise known as SAD, is a depression that occurs around the fall and winter. A lot of people report having the "winter blues" during the colder months, but SAD is more than just the blues, it can be a serious condition. Individuals who suffer from SAD often report the following:
- anxiousness and irritability
- lowered energy and motivation (e.g., sluggishness)
- feeling withdrawn
- decreased libido
- increased sleep, appetite, and weight gain
- increased alcohol consumption
- bodily aches and pains
- difficulty concentrating
- loss of interest in things once enjoyed
- when serious, some may report thoughts of suicide
Sad is the body's response to the seasonal shift in the amount of daylight. A person's circadian rhythm can be affected when the nights become longer and days become shorter. Our bodies are programmed to equate darkness with sleep, so the loss of daylight means our bodies want to go to sleep earlier and sleep longer.
This physiological process is driven by melatonin, which the brain produces in larger quantities during the fall and winter. Melatonin is responsible for helping the body fall asleep, so when it's introduced into the system in larger amounts and earlier in the day, thanks to the early sunsets this time of year, it can make people feel sluggish. Also, during fall and winter, we know that serotonin, a naturally occurring neurotransmitter in the body lowers, affecting one's mood. Sometimes to increase serotonin, people consume more carbohydrates like cakes, cookies, ice cream, and pizza and pasta. Why? Because this indirectly increases one's serotonin-the more serotonin we have available the better we feel. Despite these benefits, I wouldn’t suggest going on carb binges anytime soon because there are healthier ways to manage your SAD as you will see here!
Some people are at greater risk of developing SAD than others. Generally, we tend to see it more often in women than men. Living further from the equator where the nights are longer can also be a trigger. We know SAD can run in families, so one may have a predisposition to develop it. It's also more likely to hit someone who has a history of depression or mood disorders. Since there aren't any particular medical tests that can be performed to diagnose SAD, it's very important to know your risk factors. Since the symptoms of SAD can be similar to the symptoms of other medical conditions, your doctor is likely to perform tests (e.g. blood work) to rule out other medical conditions.
The first line of treatment for moderate levels of SAD is light therapy also known as phototherapy. If you have milder symptoms of SAD, try to get more access to daytime light. The best time for this would be around noon when the sunlight is the strongest. Even though it might be super cold, put on a coat and try to spend approximately 15 to 30 minutes outdoors. If going outdoors isn't feasible, find a window that would be conducive to allow the light to enter the eyes.
For some however, this isn't enough. When this is the case, SAD is treated with light therapy using what is a called a "light box." Basically, it's a box with bright white fluorescent bulbs with UV radiation filtered out. The typical intensity of this light is 10,000 lux with an average daily exposure of 30 minutes, which is ideally administered in the morning. Since everyone's circadian rhythm is different, take the self-assessment online titled, “Your Circadian Rhythm Type" to know when to administer light therapy.
Although light therapy is one of the first lines of treatment for SAD, there are additional treatments that can also be effective. Keep in mind that sometimes it takes ‘trial and error’ to see which one(s) work best for you. These include:
- taking antidepressant medications
- eating healthier
- taking supplements (e.g., Fish Oil, Vitamin D & B12, St. John's Wart, SAMe)
- participating in mind-body practices such as yoga, acupuncture, meditation/guided imagery, and massage therapy
- Unsure where to buy SAD products, check out the Center for Environmental Therapeutics and click on the “Shop” tab.
- Also, if you’re someone who enjoys being on your computer up until bedtime, it’s a MUST that you download f.lux. This filter will automatically adapt your screens brightness to the time of day.
CommentsM F On November 12, 2015 at 11:12 PM
Well said Dr. Grant!!!Jackie On March 28, 2016 at 8:35 AM
Wow, this is my husband to a T. He is such a happy person, but when the weather turns cold, he looses his motivation. He just wants to sleep all the time. I think I'l going to show him this, so that he knows he isn't alone, and I'm sure he will be willing to get some help.