Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is affected by seasons. There are two types of SAD, one that is very rare, but typically starts in the spring and summer months and subsides in the fall and winter. The more common type tends to come on during fall and winter and subsides in the spring and summer. It typically reoccurs and subsides at the same times every year and is often referred to as the winter blues.
The exact cause of SAD is unknown, however, there are some factors that seem to be correlated. A decrease in sunlight during the winter months may disrupt the Circadian rhythm and cause depression. A decrease in sunlight can cause a decrease in serotonin levels, which can also trigger depression. Melatonin levels in the body may be affected by seasonal changes, which can affect sleep and mood. Low levels of sunlight can also affect vitamin D levels in the body, causing them to drop too low, which is thought to contribute to SAD.
Watch for Symptoms
The most common symptoms of winter SAD include feeling depressed most of the day at least five days a week, feeling fatigued and tired, sleeping more than usual, having low motivation, trouble concentrating, agitation, not enjoying activities as one usually would, feelings of hopelessness, feelings of worthlessness, craving carbohydrates and sugars more than usual, withdrawal from others and an increase in appetite. In severe cases a person can experience thoughts of suicide.
Diagnosis and Treatment
SAD can be diagnosed by a behavioral health provider, a healthcare provider or with a psychological evaluation. Typically, patients are asked about their symptoms, when they started and if they have occurred at similar times in the past. There are a few different treatments for SAD. Increasing natural light, especially in the morning, has been shown to decrease symptoms. Light therapy lamps can begin reducing symptoms within a few days to a few weeks of use. Mental health professionals can provide education on coping skills and alleviation techniques. It can also be helpful to have vitamin D levels checked and address insufficiencies. Eating whole foods along with many fruits and vegetables, exercising, sleeping enough (7 to 9 hours for most people), staying active and connecting with family and friends can all reduce symptoms or even help prevent symptoms.
SAD may be prevented by spending time outside in the daylight even if it’s cloudy or overcast. A good goal would be to spend 30 minutes outside five times a week. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables can help prevent symptoms as well as making sure one’s vitamin D level is in the normal range for age and gender.
Don’t wait to get help. It is best to seek treatment as soon as symptoms are noticed. If SAD goes untreated it can get worse and will often affect relationships, work performance or other important aspects of life. It is important to seek help right away if feeling down much of the day most days of the week, or if SAD is inhibiting daily life. Call PremierMD+ at 616-213-0253 or fill out our online form to schedule an appointment.
Brenda Wachter, LMSW, ACSW Behavioral Health Provider