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Seasonal Affective Disorder

Most people experience depression at some point in their lives, whether from an external event like losing a loved one or internal causes such as chemical imbalances in the brain. A person might feel down in the fall when days are shorter and feel better when spring and longer days arrive. SAD usually begins in adulthood, and the risk increases with age. Millions of Americans suffer from this disorder, although there are likely those who don’t even realize it. SAD is more common in those living farther north- for instance, somebody in Alaska may be more likely to develop SAD versus a person residing in Florida. 


Depression episodes that begin in late fall or early winter are because of winter-pattern SAD. In contrast, depressive episodes that reoccur during the spring and summer months are called summer-pattern SAD. People with SAD tend to have other mental disorders like major depression, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or panic disorder. 


Symptoms of Major Depression include:

-Problems with sleep

-Losing interest in formerly enjoyable activities

-Feelings of guilt, feeling worthless or hopeless

-Difficulty with focus and thinking clearly


Symptoms of winter-pattern SAD may include:

-Oversleeping

-Overeating

-Social withdrawal


Symptoms of summer-pattern SAD may include: 

-Insomnia

-Poor appetite

-Anxiety and agitation

-Episodes of violent behavior


The cause of SAD isn’t fully understood, but research suggests that people with SAD have reduced serotonin. Research also suggests that sunlight affects the production of serotonin. This hormone regulation does not function properly in people with SAD, thus resulting in lower serotonin levels in the winter. A deficiency in vitamin D can also exacerbate the condition. Other findings suggest that people with SAD have too much melatonin, a hormone necessary for sleep. 


Treatments for SAD include light therapy, psychotherapy, antidepressants, and vitamin D supplements. 

Light therapy involves the person sitting in front of a special light for 30-45 minutes. This light therapy box mimics natural sunlight without harmful UV radiation. 

Psychotherapy can benefit people with SAD through talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). While light therapy works well in the short term, the effects of CBT can last for years. 

Medications can help with SAD as they do with other mental disorders. Antidepressants may be prescribed to enhance patients’ moods. Vitamin D supplements can help improve symptoms, although there are mixed findings regarding the effectiveness. 


If you suspect you might have SAD, talk with your healthcare provider as soon as possible. Depression is different from feeling sad and can last weeks, months, or even years. Most people respond well to medication and/or therapy, and improvement can occur within weeks. Take care of your body, let family and friends help, and try to be patient. Negative thoughts will disappear as the treatment takes hold. Resources are available for anybody who has concerns about their or a loved one’s mental health.

 

 

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