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Winter Blues or SAD?

a young lady suffering from seasonal affective disorder symptomsHave you been feeling down since the dark days of winter began? Having trouble sleeping? Do you lack your normal levels of energy? If so, you may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What is SAD?
SAD is a form of clinical depression. People usually experience SAD syndrome beginning in late autumn or early winter, and they last until spring or early summer. SAD is thought to be caused by seasonal variations in light.

SAD is most common in northern countries where seasonal variations in light are considerable, and winter tends to be longer and harsher. In the United States, approximately 4-6% of the population is affected by SAD; 10-20% of the population experiences a less severe form of the disorder, “winter-onset SAD.” There is also a reverse form of the disorder called summer-onset depression, which affects people during the summer months.

SAD is more common in women than in men. Although adults over 20 are the ones most affected by the syndrome, children and teenagers can suffer from the disorder as well.

What causes SAD?
SAD was only fairly recently recognized as a disorder, so it is not fully understood. Since  it occurs more in northern parts of the world and light therapy seems to be effective in treating it, it is thought to be related to the varying levels of light throughout the seasons.

Light affects the nerve centers in our brain that control daily moods and the rhythms of our “internal clock.” Researchers are particularly interested in the role of melatonin and serotonin in SAD.

Melatonin is a hormone secreted by a gland in the brain at night and during hours of low light. It is known to cause a drowsy feeling. Since there are lower levels of light during the winter the brain may release more melatonin, accounting for lower levels of energy in those suffering from SAD. It has been observed that sunlight has an effect on serotonin, a chemical in the brain, which also may play a role in SAD.

What are the symptoms of SAD?
The symptoms of SAD can range from mild to severe. For some, it can be debilitating, and for others simply a mild inconvenience. In general, SAD syndrome symptoms include:

  • Decreased energy
  • Irritability
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Changes in appetite, and craving sweet foods
  • Weight gain
  • Tendency to oversleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of anxiety and depression


How is SAD diagnosed?
The diagnosis of SAD can be difficult because many of the symptoms are similar to other forms of depression or bipolar disorder. People with mild cases of seasonal depression may just dismiss their symptoms as just simply the “winter blues.” One of the most telling signs is if the symptoms occur at the same time of year for more than two years in a row, and disappear in the spring and summer. Those with SAD also have normal mental health during the rest of the year.

How is SAD treated?

There are many ways that SAD-sufferers can deal with their disorder, which can help manage and relieve symptoms:

  • One way to deal with SAD is to get as much light as possible. Setting your desk up by a window, getting out for a walk during the day, and cutting back any trees or shrubs that block light from getting into your house, may help.
  • Exercise, particularly outside during daylight hours, can help reduce stress and anxiety that often accompanies the disorder.
  • Some people find that getting away to a sunnier warmer place brings temporary relief from the symptoms of SAD.
  • Light therapy is another way of coping with SAD. You can purchase a special fluorescent light box which will provide an artificial source of light during the dark months of winter.
  • Anti-depressant medication can be useful for treating SAD, particularly for those whose symptoms are especially severe.
  • Behavior therapy and counseling are other tools for treating SAD.
  • Maintaining a healthy and balanced diet, which may prevent over-eating and reduce the risks of weight gain associated with the disorder, are important also.

If you think you or someone you know may be suffering from SAD, speak with your doctor. They will be able to advise you on the best course of action. Your “winter blues” may be just that, or they may be a sign that you are suffering from SAD. Undoubtedly, admitting how you feel and learning more about it will help you feel better!

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