Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

January 3, 2019

Seasonal Affective Disorder: More Than A Case of the ‘Winter Blues’

In the late fall and early winter — when the days become shorter and the weather becomes colder — many people find that they sleep more, crave comfort foods, have less energy, and just want to stay home. But if these symptoms are severe, long-lasting, or affect your ability to perform your normal daily activities, you could be suffering from a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Here’s what you need to know about SAD, including the signs and symptoms, how it is diagnosed, and how it is treated.

What is SAD?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression, is a type of depression that is tied to the changing seasons. People who have SAD experience recurring symptoms of depression that begin and end around the same time each year, usually starting in late fall and ending in the spring. Although SAD is most common during the winter months, some people may experience symptoms of SAD during the summer.

What are the symptoms of SAD? 

Symptoms of SAD usually start when the seasons begin to change. Although symptoms may be mild at first, they can become more severe as the season progresses. Symptoms of winter SAD may include:

  • Low energy
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleeping too much
  • Increased appetite
  • Weight gain
  • Craving carbohydrates
  • Withdrawing from social activities
  • Increased desire to be alone

Symptoms of summer SAD may include:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Episodes of violent behavior

When left untreated, SAD can cause serious complications such as social withdrawal, problems at school or work, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts or actions. Untreated SAD also can lead to the development of other mental health conditions, including anxiety or eating disorders.

What causes SAD?

The causes of SAD are unknown, but experts believe several factors may contribute to SAD, including:

  • Lower levels of sunlight. Lower levels of sunlight during the winter months may disrupt your body’s biological clock, also called your circadian rhythm, and cause SAD symptoms.
  • Lower levels of serotonin. Reduced sunlight may also cause a decrease in serotonin, a chemical in your brain that affects your mood. Reduced serotonin levels can trigger depression in some people.
  • Higher levels of melatonin. Darkness increases your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. As the days become shorter, your body begins to produce more melatonin. This increase in melatonin can cause sleepiness and lethargy.

 Who is at risk for SAD?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, SAD is diagnosed four times more often in women than in men. Other risk factors for SAD include:

  • Family and personal history. If you have a family or personal history of depression or other mental health conditions, you may be at a higher risk of developing
  • Living far from the equator. People who live farther north or south of the equator may be more likely to develop SAD.
  • Younger adults have a higher risk of developing SAD than older adults.

How is SAD diagnosed?

It’s normal to have a bad day now and then. You may even experience mild changes in your appetite, mood, or energy levels as the seasons change. However, if you experience severe symptoms of SAD, feel “down” for more than a few days at a time, or lose interest in activities you used to enjoy around the same time each year, you should talk to your healthcare provider.

Your healthcare provider will ask you about how you have been feeling and when the symptoms first started. You should tell your healthcare provider if you have had any changes in your appetite or sleeping habits. It is also important to tell your healthcare provider if you feel hopeless, have started using alcohol or drugs to cope with your feelings, or have had thoughts of suicide.

How is SAD treated?

If your healthcare provider thinks you may have SAD, he or she will recommend one or more treatments, including:

  • Your healthcare provider may recommend antidepressants to treat SAD symptoms.
  • Light therapy. Light therapy, also called phototherapy, involves sitting in front of a light box every day, usually first thing in the morning. The extra exposure to bright light mimics natural outdoor light and may help to relieve winter SAD symptoms.
  • A type of psychotherapy (talk therapy) called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you cope with and manage SAD.

SAD is more than the “winter blues”; it is a disorder that can affect your mood, feelings, and ability to function normally. If you are experiencing symptoms of SAD, the nurse practitioners (NPs) at The Nurse’s Office can help. To find out more, visit www.thenursesoffice.com, call (860) 603-3541 or walk in for immediate care.

 

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