Often we may feel sluggish and low in energy during inclement weather; however, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is more than feeling the occasional winter or rainy day blues. Depression related to seasonal change can be severe and affects up to 6% of the general population. Symptoms of SAD usually manifest in the fall and continue throughout the winter months; although, some people experience symptoms beginning in the spring or summer months. In either situation, symptoms may begin mildly and become increasingly more severe as the season progresses.
Because Seasonal Affective Disorder is a subtype of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), people often suffer with the same symptoms as in depression.
Symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder
Major Depression is an episode of sadness or apathy lasting at least 2 consecutive weeks, along with other symptoms including:
- Low energy, sluggish or agitated
- Losing interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Difficulty sleeping or excessive sleeping
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Persistent aches/pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
Symptoms of Fall/Winter Onset of SAD
- Tiredness or low energy
- Problems getting along with other people
- Hypersensitivity to rejection
- Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
Symptoms of Spring/Summer Onset SAD
- Trouble sleeping
- Weight loss
- Poor appetite
- Agitation or anxiety
While the specific cause of SAD is unknown, some contributing factors include:
- Reduced levels of sunlight can affect the body’s circadian rhythm, our internal biological clock which regulates the timing of periods of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day.
- Reduced exposure to sunlight can cause a drop in Serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter known to help regulate mood.
- Seasonal changes can affect Melatonin levels in the brain which play a role in regulating sleep patterns and mood.
Although SAD is more often diagnosed in women than in men, men may experience more severe symptoms than women. While SAD can affect people who have shown no previous signs of depression, people diagnosed with clinical depression or dipolar disorder are more likely to see a worsening of their symptoms due to SAD. Due to the decreased amount of sunlight during winter, SAD is more common among people who live far north or far south of the equator.
Light therapy has been shown to be an effective treatment for SAD as it mimics natural outdoor light and causes a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. Taking a walk during the day to absorb more outdoor light, as well as staying physically active during the winter months can also be helpful to people struggling with SAD. Medication and/or psychotherapy can also be used to treat SAD, but as with any medical illness, please be sure to consult with your physician for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.