Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects about half a million people in the U.S. during the winter months, and it is thought that 10 to 20 percent may be coping with a mild form of the winter blues. Most of the people who have SAD are women, and depression usually starts in early adulthood.
Some people might start to feel “down” or blue when the days become shorter in the fall and winter (the “winter blues”) and begin to feel better in the spring when daylight lasts longer.
If you notice that your mood and behavior changes significantly whenever the seasons change, you may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression.
As the year winds down, we want to share how to combat SAD in 2020.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
For most people, SAD symptoms start in the late fall or early winter and go away during the spring and summer. This is known as winter-pattern SAD or winter depression, which is sometimes called the winter blues. Other people could experience depressive episodes during the spring and summer months. This is called summer-pattern SAD or summer depression.
SAD Symptoms to Note
Seasonal affective disorder symptoms, as noted by Mayo Clinic, include:
- Feeling depressed nearly every day for most of the day
- Having a low energy level
- Sleep difficulty
- Loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
- Appetite or weight changes
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty
- Frequently thinking about death or suicide
Winter-onset SAD symptoms include:
- Changes in appetite, and more so craving foods in high carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Feeling tired often or having low energy
Spring and summer SAD symptoms include:
- Anxiety or agitation
- Poor appetite
- Weight loss
What Causes SAD?
Let’s take an in-depth look at what could be the causes you may be coping with seasonal affective disorder.
Circadian rhythm (biological clock): It is not known what the exact cause of SAD is, but those who are sensitive to it may experience symptoms by the changes in the hours of available sunlight. There is a theory that our internal biological clocks, which regulate sleep, mood, and hormones, shift when there is less sunlight.
Serotonin levels: Another possible cause could be that the brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, namely serotonin, might be altered in people with SAD. Exposure to light is thought to correct neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain.
Melatonin levels: Melatonin, which is a chemical known to affect sleep patterns, could also be a factor in seasonal affective disorder. A lack of sunlight can stimulate the production of melatonin for some people, which can lead to feeling sleepy or sluggish.
Vitamin D levels: It is thought that we get a boost in Vitamin D from sunshine. When sunshine is lacking, our Vitamin D levels decrease, which can cause us to feel depressed.
There are higher risk factors to have SAD. They are:
Women: Women are four times more likely to have SAD than men.
Distance from the equator: The farther north you live from the equator, the less sunlight you will have in your day.
Family history: A family history of SAD or other depressive disorders may heighten your risk factor for SAD.
Personal history for bipolar disorder or depression: If you have been diagnosed with a depressive disorder or with bipolar disorder, your risk factor for SAD is increased.
These are all factors to mention to your health care provider if you feel you have SAD.
How to Combat SAD in 2020
If you are diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, there are several possibilities that might help alleviate its symptoms.
- Light therapy boxes: They give off light that mimics sunshine. The light from therapy boxes is significantly brighter than that of a regular light bulb, and it comes in different wavelengths. Sitting in front of a lightbox can stimulate your body’s circadian rhythms and suppress the natural release of melatonin.
- Antidepressants: Ask your doctor if an antidepressant medication could help ease your SAD symptoms. Be sure to mention you don’t want one that makes you feel sleepy.
- Aromatherapy: Essential oils can influence the area of the brain responsible for controlling moods and the body’s internal clock that influences sleep and appetite.
- Let the sunshine in: Head outside for a walk from around noon to later in the afternoon when the sun is at its highest. If you stay inside due to frigid weather, open your blinds and keep them open to take advantage of the sunshine.
Don’t let SAD take over your life and deprive you of the activities you enjoy or disrupt your school or work life. There are clear, healthy, and beneficial steps you can take today to combat SAD in 2020.