Do you ever notice that you start to feel blue around the same time each year? Right around the time when the days start getting shorter and the sun starts setting earlier. That’s due to a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, (how aptly named, right?). Over 3 million people experience S.A.D each year—it’s become so common that it’s now recognized by the DSM and is defined as “recurrent depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern.”
The Who, What, and When of SAD.
While some people experience SAD during the transition into summer, the majority of people are affected during the fall and winter months and begin to feel better around springtime.
Interestingly, 83% of those who experience SAD are women. Onset generally takes place in the 30’s, and most people experience some form of this disorder about 40% of the year!
Depressive symptoms can range from moderate to severe, with some people experiencing deep depression during these times of the year. Some other symptoms of SAD include increased food intake, carbohydrate cravings, weight gain, and oversleeping, as well as social withdrawal and inability to carry out work. Other conditions that can occur or worsen alongside SAD include increased premenstrual discomfort, ADHD, chronic fatigue, and even bulimia.
What Causes SAD to Develop?
Some theories suggest that those who experience SAD release more nighttime melatonin in response to changing light in the environment. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates the sleep and wake cycles of mammals (like us humans); it relates to our circadian rhythm and other natural internal cycles. This melatonin level disturbance may impact the production of one of our main “feel-good” hormones, serotonin, which could explain why we feel so blue during these times of year. Other theories suggest that SAD is genetic in its origin.
Not so shockingly, patients in North America report that their symptoms increase the farther north they live, with those experiencing deeper, darker depressions living the farthest from the equator. They also noted that their symptoms diminished when they traveled south.
The Best Way to Overcome SAD
Do you or someone you know experience Seasonal Affective Disorder? If so, it may comfort you to know that there are simple and effective ways to manage the condition!
The #1 recommended treatment for SAD is phototherapy, or light therapy.
You can easily use this technique at home by exposing yourself to light. Research suggests that the best effect comes from exposing yourself to light therapy in the morning and afternoon, the times when daylight naturally occurs. It may be best to work your way up on the “brightness scale” using a light that has a dimmer switch, instead of going full-blast as soon as you wake up. Expose yourself to light for a 30-minute session each morning.
The best type of light bulb to use is a “full spectrum” light bulb, which produces the closest light to natural sunlight because it covers the full spectrum of wavelengths. It is suggested that 10,000 lux may be needed for treatment to be effective.
Light therapy works well in combination with traditional therapy and antidepressant medication. If your SAD symptoms are moderate to severe, it’s a good idea to contact your primary health care provider to get recommendations on one or both of these options.