Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Autumn is here, and I greatly love this time of the year for a variety of reasons; cooler weather, family gatherings, thanksgiving, and winter holiday festivities but unfortunately, it ushers in something that I have been dealing with much of my life. The best way to describe my symptoms is that it feels like a slight “heaviness” descends upon me and affects my energy levels and concentration. After much investigation I have come to realize that I may suffer from what is known as: Seasonal Affective Disorder, otherwise known as SAD.
After researching the subject I have discovered that I have a mild form of SAD and know that it impacts me in a few ways, so as I continue to find out more about this disorder and find natural and healthy treatment options to combat SAD I want to help others that may be undergoing the same changes.
What is SAD?
SAD is a form of depression that happens at the same time each year (typically fall/winter) and is thought to be associated with a lack of sunlight. Right about this time each year, the days get shorter and darker and it often seems as if the sun is on sabbatical. For some people, the lack of sunlight during the fall and winter can lead to feeling seriously blue and even depressed. Known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), it is estimated that 2-10% of Americans are affected by this condition each year.
More Than Just the Winter Blues
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. (DSMV-IV), categorizes seasonal affective disorder (SAD) not as a unique mood disorder, but as a specifier of major depression. Because SAD is a subtype of major depression, it may overlap with other diagnoses that share similar mechanisms, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, bulimia nervosa, late luteal phase dysphoric disorder, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
What Causes SAD?
SAD is thought to result from a shift in the body’s circadian rhythms, due to changes in sunlight patterns. The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt your body’s internal clock, which lets you know when you should sleep or be awake. This disruption of your circadian rhythm may lead to feelings of depression. Shorter, darker days also disrupt the balance of melatonin, a naturally-occurring hormone which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood. When you are exposed to less sunlight, your melatonin levels can increase and make you feel depressed. Finally, a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that balances mood, caused by reduced sunlight might play a role in triggering depression.
Treatment for SAD
Light therapy is arguably the most popular form of SAD treatment and works by mimicking sunlight. Light therapy causes a biochemical change in your brain that lifts your mood, giving you relief from the symptoms of SAD. Light boxes emit intensities of light of 2,500 to 10,000 lux (as compared to a normal light fixture that emits 250 to 500 lux) and produce similar effects to the sun’s natural rays.
Regular exercise, eating right, and managing stress can be extremely helpful techniques to combat feelings of the blues in the winter. Some people who suffer from more severe cases of SAD might find that anti-depressant medicine, in conjunction with other forms of therapy, assists mood.
Signs You May Be Suffering From SAD
Symptoms are most likely to occur in winter, but some forms of SAD do occur during the summer. They may start our mild and become more severe as the season progresses. Symptoms include inability to concentrate; increase in irritability; fatigue; appetite change, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates, social withdrawal; feelings of sadness, unhappiness, or restlessness; or loss of interest in work and activities you once enjoyed.
Top Points About SAD
Here are some notes I took from the Mayo Clinic’s pages about SAD and other sources:
1) As mentioned by the Mayo Clinic, WEBMD, and many others, SAD is a form of depression. So, it’s not “just the winter blues”. If you have more than mild symptoms when the seasons change, it could be worth asking your doctor about this.
2) Serotonin levels. A possible cause of SAD is low serotonin levels. The Mayo Clinic says, “A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.” I have had my serotonin levels tested and they were lower than they should be.
3) Sunshine and Vitamin D3. Sunshine is a very important treatment for SAD. Unfortunately, unlike sunlight, light therapy boxes don’t appear to stimulate the production of Vitamin D so it’s still far more important to get as much sunshine as possible in the fall/winter. Another possible treatment if recommended by your doctor/practitioner is to supplement with high quality vitamin D3.
4) Family History. The Mayo Clinic lists family history as a risk factor, stating “People with SAD may be more likely to have blood relatives with SAD or another form of depression.”
5) Light Therapy. The Mayo Clinic also says, “Light therapy is one of the first-line treatments for fall-onset SAD. It generally starts working in a few days to two weeks and causes few side effects. Research on light therapy is limited, but it appears to be effective for most people in relieving SAD symptoms.”
6) Diet and Exercise. The program of a good diet and consistent exercise is very helpful with the treatment of SAD. Exercise in particular can help you deal with stress, which can help with SAD.
My Take Home Message
I would be remiss if I didn’t thank my wife (thank you honey, I love you!) who is the one that not only has helped me through SAD year after year, but also took the time to research this disorder and bought me the light therapy. I have always tried to use alternative forms of therapy whenever possible and at this point do not feel the need for traditional western pharmaceutical interventions. As I said before I believe to have a very mild form of this disorder and am going to try all natural forms of therapy that are available. Seeing that most of you know I already exercise with regularity and I am pretty conscientious with my nutrition; I am going to try the light therapy and see if this works. So starting tomorrow I will begin the light therapy for 1 month and will see how it goes. I will report back in 1 month with a detailed schedule of light therapy dosage and my finding on how I feel from day to day.
I am a firm believer that information and education are vital to helping those in need. If you or anyone you know may be experiencing any of the symptoms above I hope that this may give you a little insight into SAD and if you feel this information may help someone else please forward this blog. If you are or some you know is experiencing symptoms that seem to be more intense then the one’s listed above or are unsure of what they are experiencing, or suffering with major depression, or suicidal thoughts please contact your doctor or 911 immediately.
Let’s all work together to stay happy this fall/winter instead of being sad.
Have a great week everyone!
Baumann, Michelle. “Diagnosing and Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).”Breaking Muscle. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2014.
Gregory Lande, “The Winter Blues can be a SAD Story,” American Osteopathic Association, Accessed November 16, 2013.
John Grohol, “Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).” Psych Central. Accessed November 16, 2013.
Normal Rosenthal, “What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?” Accessed November 17, 2013.
American Psychiatric Association. Task Force on DSM-IV. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.
Partonen T, Magnusson A. Seasonal Affective Disorder: Practice and Research. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2001.
http://breakingmuscle.com/health-medicine/diagnosing-and-treating-seasonal-affective-disorder-sad – _ftnref6Northwestern Memorial Hospital, “Battling Seasonal Affective Disorder,” accessed November 17, 2013.
Grohol, “Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).”
“Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).” Mayo Clinic. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2014.