Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is linked to changes in weather. SAD usually begins and ends at the same time every year. The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder start appearing during late fall or early winter and starts getting better during bright sunny days of spring and summer. In most cases the symptoms start out mild and get more severe as the season progresses. Seasonal affective disorder is also termed winter depression, winter blues, summer depression and seasonal depression.
Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
It is easy to determine the causes of depression, but the exact cause of mood change due to seasonal affective disorder remains unknown. Some factors that may influence seasonal affective disorder are:
- Body’s Biological Clock: Season change may disrupt the body’s biological internal clock or circadian rhythm. The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may lead to winter-onset SAD and feelings of depression.
- Serotonin Levels: Serotonin is an important brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that determines mood. A drop in serotonin level due to reduced sunlight can affect the mood and play a role in the onset of SAD.
- Melatonin Levels: Change is season also disrupts the balance of melatonin levels in the body, and it may contribute to the onset of SAD. Melatonin is a sleep-related hormone secreted by the brain. This hormone causes symptoms of depression, and it is produced at an increased level in the dark. Therefore, the production of this hormone increases when the days are shorter and darker.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Symptoms of Fall and Winter SAD:
- Low energy and tiredness
- Problems in getting along with people
- Heaviness in arms and legs
- Changes in appetite and craving for carbohydrate-rich foods
- Weight Gain
Symptoms of Spring and Summer SAD:
- Weight Loss
- Poor appetite
- Agitation and anxiety
Risk Factors for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
There are a number of factors that can increase the risk of seasonal affective disorder.
- Gender: Seasonal affective disorder is diagnosed more commonly in women compared to men, but men usually experience more severe symptoms.
- Age: Young people are at higher risk of winter SAD compared to older adults.
- Family History: People who have blood relatives with SAD or any other form of depression are more likely to be affected by SAD themselves.
- Location: SAD is more prevalent among people who live far from the equator. Places situated far north or south of the equator receive decreased sunlight during winter and longer days during summer months.
Complications Related to Seasonal Affective Disorder
Depression and mood swings during seasonal changes should not be brushed off as winter blues. Just like other types of depression, seasonal affective disorder can also get worse and lead to serious problems if it is left untreated. Some of the complications related to seasonal affective disorder are:
- Suicidal tendency or behaviour
- Withdrawal from society
- Substance abuse
- Problems in school or at work
When to See a Doctor for Seasonal Affective Disorder?
It is perfectly normal to experience some depressing days when your feel down. But if depression continues for days at a time and you can’t gather the motivation to continue with your daily activities then you must see a doctor without delay. This is especially important if depression affects your sleep pattern and appetite and the feeling of depression changes into hopelessness, you think about ending your life or you turn to alcohol or drugs in search of comfort and relaxation.
Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder
There are a few types of therapies and medications to treat seasonal affective disorder.
- Phototherapy: Phototherapy or light therapy is one of the most effective treatments for seasonal affective disorder. Phototherapy has been shown to suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin. In this treatment, the patient has to remain in high-intensity light for up to 4 hours every day. The patient may carry on with normal day-to-day activities such as eating or reading while undergoing this therapy.
- Spending More Time In Sunlight: Mild symptoms of seasonal affective disorder can be treated by spending more time outdoors during the day. An hour’s walk in winter sunlight is as effective as two and a half hours under bright artificial light. You can also try to arrange your workplace to receive more sunlight.
- Antidepressants: If phototherapy does not work then antidepressant drugs may be used to reduce or eliminate the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. But you must consider the side effects of these medicines before deciding to opt for the treatment. Make it a point to discuss your symptoms thoroughly with your doctor or mental health professional before opting for any treatment or medications.
For most people, the seasonal affective disorder symptoms are fairly mild, and they last for a short period. Only a small percentage of people have severe symptoms, and they should seek formal treatment without any delay in order to carry on with their normal activities and lead a healthy and happy life.
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