SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, as the name suggests, is a seasonal condition that occurs either during the fall and winter months or in the summer season. Also called Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern, it is often mistaken as major depression, because of the symptoms they share.
The exact cause of S.A.D. is unknown but low levels of neurotransmitters like melatonin and serotonin are factors. Since the rise and setting of the sun have a strong relationship with our circadian rhythm, seasonal changes in this can disrupt one’s hormone levels. Less sunlight can cause serotonin levels to drop which affects mood and changes in the amount of sunlight can also affect melatonin levels which affect sleep patterns.
Living in Alaska, far from the equator makes us more susceptible to S.A.D. Daylight changes are more pronounced from season to season with much shorter days in winter and far longer days in summer. Our bodies have to compensate even more for these seasonal sunlight swings.
Most people assume the symptoms are the same year-round or only visible during dark winter months but they do vary by the time of year. Winter symptoms lean more toward increased appetite, weight gain, and tiredness versus spring symptoms that include agitation, insomnia, and anxiety.
Fall & Winter S.A.D. Symptoms:
- Mood swings
- Weight gain
- Difficulty in concentrating
- Increased urge to sleep and low energy
- Recurring suicidal thoughts
- Feeling depressed
- Lack of interest in activities you normally enjoy
Summer S.A.D. Symptoms:
- Difficulty in sleeping
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
People affected with the seasonal affective disorder usually start feeling down during the start of the season. For fall and winter SAD, individuals may notice the changes in their moods at the beginning of fall and progress throughout the winter. The symptoms only disappear in mid-spring, when the sun is much brighter.
As for summer SAD, symptoms begin in late spring and diminish at the end of the season. Remember, you are more likely to be diagnosed with SAD if you’ve been experiencing these moods changes and symptoms for at least three seasons in a row. Always consult your doctor before starting any treatment.
Since SAD is a seasonal condition, treatment is temporary. Light therapy, has been found to help many people suffering from this condition. As a replacement for the sun, happy lights– or light therapy lamps mimic the sun’s brightness which helps our brain produce the right neurotransmitters to function well. A person with SAD should expose himself to light therapy for 30-90 minutes a day or as prescribed by your physician.
Researchers have found that light therapy is the most effective so far. Almost 50-60% of individuals affected with this condition have said that a lightbox has helped them feel better. Before purchasing a light box, consider consulting your doctor for the best lightbox for you. Your medical provider can also tell you the proper use, and when to use it.
Another alternative is to get outside during daylight hours and take advantage of what natural light is available. The outdoor light can help even on cloudy days. This can be difficult if you work and you’re stuck indoors during the day. It’s also hard in Alaska when it’s cold and winter is long. But, you can usually find short windows of time to take a 10-15 minute walk at various times. Look for brief moments during your day to bundle up and escape to the sun, even if it is a cold sun. Take time to notice the natural light through your eyelids, feel the light on your face and get the added benefit of physical exercise.
For people with symptoms during the long summer days consider blackout curtains in your bedroom to block the light. Also, even though the day is long, try sticking to a schedule with a regular bedtime and wake-up.
Other treatments that can also help an individual with SAD are medications such as melatonin and vitamin D may also be added to your lightbox therapy. Anti-depressants have also been found helpful in treating SAD. Always keep in mind that it may take a few weeks for these treatments to take effect. If symptoms persist, consult your medical provider.
While waiting for your treatment to take effect, it is recommended that you do the following:
Brighten up your living space. Open your curtains and let the brightness in. You can also move your workspace near a window where it is much brighter. This way, you can still get some light from the sun.
Avoid alcohol consumption as this may also add to your sulky mood. Instead, get more exercise. Being more active can help decrease anxiety and stress.