4 Tips for Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a mood disorder caused by a change of seasons. The most common form of SAD is depression as winter approaches. However, some people experience depressive symptoms in the spring or summer and for people with bipolar disorder, hot weather can trigger a manic episode.
While many people experience the “winter blues” as the days get shorter and colder, SAD is an episode of major depression caused by seasonal change. That means symptoms must persist for at least two weeks for a SAD diagnosis. Symptoms of SAD may include depressed mood, irritability, fatigue, loss of interest in things you used to enjoy, sleep disturbance, change of appetite, inability to concentrate, feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, or thoughts of suicide or death. While insomnia tends to be the more common form of sleep disturbance with major depression, with SAD, sleeping too much tends to be more common. And while it’s typically more common for depression to suppress appetite, SAD often causes increased appetite, especially for carbs, and may lead to weight gain.
Who is at risk for SAD?
While anyone can develop SAD, there are a number of risk factors that make it far more likely. One is if you have a close relative, such as a parent or sibling, who experiences SAD. Another major risk factor is if you have a preexisting mood disorder such as major depression or bipolar disorder. Seasonal changes can trigger a depressive episode. Women also have a much higher risk of SAD than men. While women have slightly less than twice the risk of developing major depression, they have about four times the risk of experiencing SAD. Finally, the farther you live from the equator, the higher your risk for SAD. For example, only about one percent of people who live in Florida experience SAD, compared to between two and six percent in Canada. And an estimated nine percent of people in Alaska experience SAD.
What Causes SAD?
We aren’t sure about the exact mechanism that causes SAD but reduced sunlight in the winter months is likely a significant factor. Sunlight is responsible for maintaining the body’s circadian rhythm, which controls sleep cycles and metabolism. Lack of sunlight may affect the levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and melatonin, which affect mood and sleep. Since we derive most of our vitamin D from exposure to sun, that might also be a factor, since low vitamin D levels have also been found in people with major depression. These biochemical factors may be compounded by the holiday season. Family commitments, travel, and financial strain often make this a stressful time. What’s more, sweets are abundant around the holidays. Refined sugar is inflammatory and recent research has linked inflammation to depression.
What can you do about SAD?
If you feel depressed as winter approaches, don’t dismiss your symptoms as “winter blues.” Talk to your doctor or therapist to be sure it’s not something more serious like SAD. If you are experiencing SAD, it’s typically treated in a similar way to depression. Antidepressants such as SSRIs have been shown to be an effective treatment. SSRIs are thought to correct for the low serotonin levels resulting from lack of sunlight. SSRIs have also been shown to be as effective as light therapy–see below–and more convenient and cost-effective.
Another common therapy for SAD is light therapy. Since SAD is thought to be mainly caused by an abnormal circadian rhythm caused by a lack of sunlight, exposure to bright light might correct for the winter darkness. Many people in higher latitudes wake up in the dark, go to work in the dark and drive home in the dark. Light therapy simply requires sitting in front of a bright, full-spectrum light for 30 to 60 minutes each morning at home or at work. This signals your brain it’s time to wake up and may get your neurotransmitters back to the right levels. As noted above, medication may be more convenient and cost effective but many people are reluctant to take medication. If you’re already taking an SSRI for depression and experience SAD anyway, light therapy is probably the next logical step.
As noted above, low levels of vitamin D have been associated with depression and since most of our vitamin D is created in the skin when exposed to sunlight, people in northern latitudes typically don’t get enough vitamin D in the winter. Light therapy doesn’t use the wavelengths your skin needs to produce vitamin D. Evidence for using vitamin D to treat SAD is not as strong as SSRIs or light therapy but at least one study found that vitamin D supplementation is as effective as light therapy. There are several caveats though. One is that the study was small, with only 29 participants. Another is that participants were given one large dose of vitamin D–100,000 IU. Vitamin D can cause dangerous side effects when large doses are taken over several months, so if you decide to try supplementation, be sure to discuss it with your doctor.
Diet and exercise
As noted above, the holidays can seduce you into unhealthy eating. If you’re already experiencing the symptoms of winter SAD, you are probably not saying no to a lot of holiday sweets. Paying attention to your diet by eating whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, nuts, beans, and legumes and keeping sweets to a minimum will help improve your mood. Also, when the weather is cold and dark, people tend to stay inside and get cozy rather than stay active. Many studies have found that exercise improves mood and reduces symptoms of depression. So try to get a little exercise every day–outside, if you can, but if not, consider joining a gym. Gyms often offer exercise classes, which may be a great way to add a social dimension to your exercise.
At Patrick Hart Consultants, we provide a number of different services to fit the needs of each individual client. Among these, are helping you choose a treatment provider, helping you develop a treatment plan, helping you establish post-treatment support, and ensuring continuity among the different elements of treatment. Contact us today at 844-262-7970 or Info@PatrickHartConsultants.com or explore our website for more information.