by Kimberly Allen, RN
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as the winter blues or winter depression, is a type of mood disorder. SAD occurs at the same time every year while during the rest of the year there are no symptoms of depression. SAD usually develops in the fall as the days get shorter and lasts through winter. However, there are people that suffer from spring and summer time SAD though it isn’t nearly as common as in the winter. Experts estimate that at least 5% of adults suffer from SAD every year and approximately 20% of adults experience some symptoms of SAD, however not enough to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of SAD. Women are four times for likely to suffer from SAD than men. Also, people that live further away from the equator whether north or south are more prone to SAD. SAD can affect people of all ages with an average age of onset being in the early to mid 20’s.
The exact cause of SAD is unclear, however, most experts believe it has to do with a number of factors including age and genetics and the individual chemical make up of your body. As fall approaches the amount of sunlight diminishes, as the sunlight diminishes it tends to interfere with your body’s internal clock. This in turn interferes with your sleep-awake pattern, which can lead to depression. Decreased sunlight also causes serotonin levels to drop. Serotonin is one of the brain chemicals that affects our moods. The reduced sunlight can also interfere with the melatonin balance which can interfere with your sleep patterns and mood.
For most people the symptoms of SAD occur during late fall or early winter and resolve once the longer days of spring arrive. However, there are people that experience symptoms of SAD in the opposite seasons, beginning in late spring or early summer. Usually the symptoms of SAD begin mild becoming more and more severe as the season progresses. The most common symptoms of SAD include feeling tired and depressed with mood swings, irritability and crying spells. Some people complain of various aches and pains as well as difficulty sleeping and decreased libido while others complain of difficulty concentrating and over eating accompanied by weight gain. For those people that suffer with SAD during the summer months the symptoms are usually inability to sleep with a poor appetite and weight loss. They also suffer form many of the same symptoms as those in the winter including irritability and crying spells.
In order for your Dr to give a diagnosis of SAD you must meet certain criteria as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM. The DSM states that you must experience depression for at least two consecutive years, occurring at the same time each year. These period of depression must be followed by a period without depression and all other reasons for your recurring depression have been ruled out.
The treatment for SAD usually involves light therapy also called phototherapy. It is usually for 30 min in the morning and evening. Results are usually seen in 2-4 days and there are almost no side effects. Some Drs also prescribe antidepressants like paxil or zoloft. Some Drs also recommend psychotherapy to help you learn to understand the thoughtsd and behaviors that make you feel worse as well as help you learn healthy ways to copewith your feeling and manage stress.
If you or someone you know are experiencing symptoms of SAD do not ignore them. SAD should be taken seriously as it can worsen and lead to serious problems like suicidal thoughts and substance abuse if not treated.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.