Weather can be a deciding factor on how you feel about a day. A sunny day energizes you when you have a multitude of tasks to accomplish. A gray, dreary day will likely make you feel like you want to crawl back under the covers. A bright, snowy day can lift your spirits and inspire snowball fights and cups of hot chocolate. The common thread here is that your mood can change each day.
Unfortunately, some individuals succumb to a type of depression that changes with the seasons, lasting far longer than a single day. The loss of sunlight beginning in late autumn triggers a type of depression that can be clinically diagnosed and that rarely lifts until spring. Although rarer and less commonly diagnosed, some individuals suffer the same type of symptoms during the summer months, beginning in late spring and early summer. Awareness of this condition has existed for many decades, but only recently was it named Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.).
S.A.D. is a recognized disorder with defined symptoms. Whether symptoms appear for you during winter months or summer sunshine, you should consult with your health care professional to arrive at a diagnosis as this condition can become debilitating.
It is important to learn about the symptoms and to know that there is treatment to help people with S.A.D. live a productive life year-round. People with this type of condition are often afraid to tell their friends or employers and may face certain prejudices. Others are told to just “snap out of it”. Yet mental health conditions such as S.A.D. are medical disorders that can be treated, often with excellent results.
WHY ARE PEOPLE AFFECTED BY S.A.D.?
Research into the causes of SAD is ongoing. As yet, there is no confirmed cause. However, SAD is thought to be related to seasonal variations in light.
A “biological internal clock” in the brain regulates our circadian (daily) rhythms. This biological clock responds to changes in season, partly because of the differences in the length of the day. For many thousands of years, the cycle of human life revolved around the daily cycle of light and dark. We were alert when the sun shone; we slept when our world was in darkness. The relatively recent introduction of electricity has relieved us of the need to be active mostly in the daylight hours. But our biological clocks may still be telling our bodies to sleep as the days shorten. This puts us out of step with our daily schedules, which no longer change according to the seasons. Other research shows that neurotransmitters, chemical messengers in the brain that help regulate sleep, mood, and appetite, may be disturbed in SAD. 1
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF S.A.D.?
SAD can be difficult to diagnose, since many of the symptoms are similar to those of other types of depression or bipolar disorder. Even physical conditions, such as thyroid problems, can look like depression. Generally, symptoms that recur for at least 2 consecutive winters, without any other explanation for the changes in mood and behaviour, indicate the presence of S.A.D. They may include:
- change in appetite, in particular a craving for sweet or starchy foods
- weight gain
- decreased energy
- tendency to oversleep
- difficulty concentrating
- avoidance of social situations
- feelings of anxiety and despair
The symptoms of S.A.D generally disappear when spring arrives. For some people, this happens suddenly with a short time of heightened activity. For others, the effects of S.A.D gradually dissipate.
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Symptoms of summer depression may include:
- poor appetite
- weight loss
- trouble sleeping 2
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The Mayo Clinic describes three types of Seasonal Affective Disorder, each with its own set of symptoms. According to the American Psychiatric Association, for a diagnosis to qualify as S.A.D, it must meet four criteria:
- Depressive episodes at a particular time of the year;
- Remissions or mania/hypomania also at a characteristic time of year;
- These patterns must have lasted two years with no nonseasonal major depressive episodes during that same period; and
- These seasonal depressive episodes outnumber other depressive episodes throughout the patient’s lifetime. 3
WHO IS AFFECTED?
It is possible to experience all of the above symptoms, but to a lesser degree. This condition is commonly referred to as the “winter blues” although, as previously discussed, can emerge in summer months. Winter blues will affect approximately 15% of the population, while full-blown S.A.D. affects approximately 2-3%.
Children and teens are not immune to S.A.D., however it is more commonly diagnosed, in women especially, over the age of 20. Gladly, it is less likely to be diagnosed in seniors as the risk decreases with age.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
People who live in northern climates are more likely to be diagnosed with S.A.D. However, it’s not just about your geography. Because S.A.D. seems to be triggered in proportion to the amount of natural light you are exposed to, shift workers are also at risk for developing S.A.D. If you live and work downtown, you may go to work when it’s dark and come home after dark, meaning you are also less likely to be exposed to the natural rays of the sun.
In the state of Alaska, a full 8.9% of the population suffers from S.A.D., and another 24.9% suffer from winter blues. Roughly 20% of Irish people are affected by S.A.D. with 10% of the population of the Netherlands suffering from S.A.D. 4
Where you live can be as important as where you play. People suffering with S.A.D. find that spending a few months in a southerly location usually helps alleviate the symptoms of their condition.
HOW IS S.A.D. TREATED?
Doctors often prescribe light therapy to treat SAD. There are two types of light therapy:
- Bright light treatment. For this treatment, you sit in front of a “light box” for half an hour or longer, usually in the morning.
- Dawn simulation. For this treatment, a dim light goes on in the morning while you sleep, and it gets brighter over time, like a sunrise.
Light therapy works well for most people with SAD, and it is easy to use. You may start to feel better within a week or so after you start light therapy. But you need to stick with it and use it every day until the season changes. If you don’t, your depression could come back. For a more in-depth explanation of light therapy, CLICK HERE.
Other treatments that may help include:
- Antidepressants. These medicines can improve the balance of brain chemicals that affect mood.
- Counseling – Some types of counseling, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, can help you learn more about SAD and how to manage your symptoms.
If your doctor prescribes antidepressants, be sure you take them the way you are told to. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. This could cause side effects or make your depression worse. When you are ready to stop, your doctor can help you slowly reduce the dose to prevent problems.
You may feel better if you get some exercise most days of the week. Being active during the daytime, especially first thing in the morning, may help you have more energy and feel less depressed. Gentle exercise such as walking, riding a stationary bike, or swimming is a good way to get started. 5
Carol Roy is a Natural Health Practitioner, registered with Natural Health Practitioners Canada, who received her diploma from the Alternative Medicine College of Canada in Montreal, Quebec. With 9 years experience in her area of expertise, naturopathic medicine, Carol has also trained to become a fully qualified Reiki Master, Quantum Touch ® Practitioner and Reflexologist.
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1. Canadian Mental Health Association
2. Canadian Mental Health Association
3. Wikipedia Search String – “S.A.D.”
4. Wikipedia Search String – “S.A.D.”
5. British Columbia Health Guide