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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Symptoms, Causes, Self-care, Treatment

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of recurrent depression. It is sort of mood disorder which usually occurs during the fall of winter and increases as the winter months progress. People suffering from this kind of depression have otherwise perfect mental health.

Severity of it varies from person to person. People with severe seasonal affective disorder might be affected by bipolar disorder.

Individuals who experience similar symptoms in summer are supposed to be affected by reverse seasonal affective disorder. SAD is also known as ‘winter blues’, ‘seasonal depression’ ‘winter depression’ or ‘hibernation reaction’. With SAD, an individual experiences signs of depression like fatigue, disinterest in daily activities and lethargy as the winter months approach and the daylight period begins to decrease.

Whom does SAD affect
  • Women are more vulnerable to SAD than men are
  • Children and adolescents
  • People between ages of 15 to 50 years
  • Someone who has at least one close relative affected by some sort of psychiatric condition
  • Prior severe depression disorder
  • People who intake excessive alcohol
  • Individuals who live in extreme northern countries where winters are extremely severe and there is major fluctuation in daylight

SAD symptoms

In SAD people usually experience atypical somatic symptoms -
  • Unhappiness
  • Irritability without reason
  • Lethargy
  • Fluctuating moods
  • Anxiousness
  • Weight gain (craving for starchy and carbohydrate foods)
  • Disinterest in daily activities
  • Guilt feeling
  • Feeling of worthlessness, pessimism and restlessness
  • Loss of energy
  • Suicidal tendency in severe cases
  • Oversleeping especially during the day
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Disinterest in socializing

Causes of SAD

Seasonal affective disorder disrupts a person's circadian rhythm and having fewer hours of sunlight throw the body’s internal time clock off. It is this disruption in sunlight and the persons internal clock that triggers depression. Hormonal levels in both the brain and the bloodstream change. Lower levels of melatonin and serotonin disrupts a SAD sufferers sleep pattern and leads to depression.

Common factors that lead to SAD are reduced light, hormones, body temperature and genes. SAD is believed to be associated with changes in levels of serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that acts as a neurotransmitter for the body. It plays vital role in mood change. Reduced sunlight for prolonged periods is believed to reduce serotonin levels in the body that leads to SAD. A study conducted on SAD revealed that if the body is unable to convert serotonin chemical into N-acetylserotonin, it leads to development of depressive symptoms.

Another chemical that is associated with sleep is melatonin. Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in the body when it is dark. The pineal gland is directly linked to the retina through retinohypothalamic tract and suprachiasmatic nucleus.

Lower vitamin D level is also believed to be a contributor in development of SAD.

The circadian rhythm, the biological clock, that controls sleep cycle may be disrupted due to reduced daylight, thus disturbing the natural body clock of sleeping and waking up in the morning.

Recent scientific research suggested that mutation of a gene melanopsin might have association with development of SAD.

SAD treatment

Light therapy has been found to be successful in the treatment for SAD. A special lamp that produces up to 10,000 lux (lumens) is used to mimic sunlight or sunrise in the morning. Sitting in front of the lamp for about 30 minutes in a day has been proved to be extremely useful. However, certain side effects like headache and eye pain have been reported due to prolonged use of SAD lamp.

Apart from light therapy, medication like anti-depressants, cognitive behavioral therapy, ionized air administration and psychotherapy are various treatments that aid in improving seasonal affective disorder symptoms.

How to Deal with SAD

Get outside and exercise. If seasonal affective disorder’s main cause is lack of sun light, then it only makes more sense to experience more natural sunlight during the winter months. In general, exercise is a great way to combat depression. Breaking a sweat and doing something great for the body always leaves to a better mood. Sufferers should also spend more time around friends and family. Have a laugh, watch funny movies, and spend time with the people you enjoy. Create a high quality life where you do the things you normally enjoy.

Artificial ways to improve the quality of life of seasonal affective disorder sufferers: As mentioned earlier, artificial lights are a great way to bring a little sunlight into your life. It is documented that SAD sufferers who used artificial lights experienced less depression and fewer symptoms than SAD sufferers who did not use artificial lights to remedy their depression.

Seasonal affective disorder treatment includes quality of life changes and the use of artificial lights. When combining natural and artificial treatments, seasonal affective disorder sufferers are able to experience a better life and fewer bouts with depression. Do spend more time with family and friends. Try to learn new skills and hobbies, and spend as much time in nature. Often times it will take forcing yourself to do these things, but it is well worth the effort. Drag yourself to the gym or the track and exercise. All of these things will help you combat SAD.

SAD is a mild depression illness. People affected by this illness are perfectly normal as the illness is triggered by external climatic factors rather than internal body malfunctions. Hence, in most cases, as the gloomy winter months pass by so does the ailment.


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