Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs in individuals during certain parts of the year. Often referred to as seasonal depression or “the winter blues” it is most prevalent during the winter months, however it can present itself in some people during the spring, summer, or fall seasons. It usually lasts for just a few months and seems to subside during a change in the season.
This is a fairly new recognized disorder and some estimates have about 5% occurrence of SAD in adults in the US. It usually occurs between the ages of 15 and 55 but can occur at any age. Knowing the symptoms, causes, risk factors and treatment options may help a person suffering from this disorder immensely in their quest for relief.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms
Those suffering from SAD may experience any of the usual symptoms of depression however there are a few symptoms more commonly associated with seasonal affective disorder. Some of these may include:
- Fatigue, lethargy, loss of energy
- Increased appetite due to carbohydrate cravings
- Weight gain
- Increased sadness
- Loss of interest in activities and sex
- Increased desire to sleep, sleeping too much
- Inability to concentrate
Those that have seasonal affective disorder in the winter months tend to suffer these symptoms anywhere between October to April and see the symptoms subside towards the beginning of spring into summer.
Those that suffer with SAD during the summer months may experience different symptoms than those who are afflicted during the winter. These may include:
- Decreased appetite
- Overly agitated
- Weight loss
Suicide is always a risk in someone suffering from any form of major depression. Suicidal symptoms may present themselves in severe cases of SAD. Immediate help should be sought after for anyone contemplating or talking about hurting themselves or others.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Causes and Risk Factors
While the exact cause of seasonal affective disorder is not known, many believe it may be caused and linked to an individuals response to the lack of sunlight. The further away from the equator a person lives the less sunlight is seen during winter days. This drastic change in the amount of sunlight seen during the day between the different seasons can have a profound effect on some people. The decreased amount of sunlight can affect serotonin levels in the brain which can alter a person’s mood. Lack of sunlight can also disrupt an individual’s natural sleep cycle. Low levels of vitamin D have also been observed in some patients with season affective disorder.
Risk factors for developing SAD may involve:
- Living far enough from the equator to see substantial changes in the amount of daily sunlight between the seasons.
- People ages 15 to 55
- A family history of depression or season affective disorder
- Being female
Along with where a person lives, their age also plays a role. Most cases of SAD are diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 55. As a person ages their chances of developing SAD decrease, however a person of any age may develop season affective disorder. Women are at an increased risk to suffer from SAD or any type of depression in general over men. Also, anyone who has a family member or family history of SAD is at an increased risk.
Having any of the above risk factors does not mean someone will definitely develop and suffer with SAD, it just means their chances are higher than normal and they should stay vigilant of any symptoms that may present themselves. Conversely, not having any of the risk factors does not mean that a person has no risk of developing SAD, just that their chances are lower. SAD can affect anyone, men and women, young and old.
Potential Treatment Options
The main course of treatment for SAD that has proven to be effective is light therapy. Light boxes with high intensity fluorescent bulbs are used to increase a patients exposure to light. These light boxes are usually capable of delivering light that is 20 to 30 times more intense than normal house hold lamps. A patient sits in front of the light box and is exposed to the light for about 20 minutes to an hour depending on the severity of their condition.
Light boxes are usually used in the morning in an attempt to mimic the light of the sunrise. This is usually done in an attempt to reset a patient’s circadian rhythm for those suffering from winter seasonal affective disorder. Studies show that up to 80% of patients with seasonal affective disorder are effectively treated with light therapy using light boxes. While side effects are infrequent with light therapy, they may include headaches, nausea and eyestrain. These tend to subside rather quickly.
The effects of light therapy may begin to be seen in as little as one week, but it should be continued until the next change in season. Those suffering from winter SAD should use it until the beginning of spring. The use of anti-depressants may also be prescribed as well as the inclusion of psychotherapy.
If you are worried you may have season affective disorder and notice that you experience symptoms of depression that intensify during a particular season such as winter and then subside when the seasons change then it may be time to seek help. Effective treatments are available for SAD and if it is bad enough to disrupt you daily life activities then seeking out the services of a qualified medical or mental health professional is encouraged.