Are you experiencing the winter blues — sleeping more than usual, feeling lethargic, and craving carbohydrates? You might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a form of depression that affects people during the same season each year, usually at the onset of winter and often as winter progresses. Learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of SAD is the first step in getting help.
Symptoms and causes
Between four and six percent of people in the United States suffer from SAD, while another 10 to 20 percent may experience some of the disorder’s symptoms. SAD is more common the further from the equator, where winter days are short and there is less exposure to daylight.
Doctors believe that a lack of sunlight upsets a person’s biological internal clock or circadian rhythms, such as the sleep-wake cycle. This cycle disruption may cause a drop in a brain chemical called serotonin, which affects mood. The change in seasons also causes an increase of the hormone melatonin, which can affect both sleep patterns and mood.
People with SAD typically start having symptoms in September or October and feel better around April or May. They may experience:
• Increased appetite and cravings for carbohydrates
• Feeling sad, grumpy, moody, or anxious
• Difficulty concentrating or handling more complex tasks
• Feeling overwhelmed by routine activities or responsibilities
• Losing interest in usual activities and perhaps feeling hopeless
• Feeling drowsy, with low energy and initiative during the day
• Oversleeping, or struggling to fall or stay asleep at night
If you have several of these symptoms and suspect you are experiencing SAD, consult your physician or healthcare provider.
Diagnosis and treatments
It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between depression that is not seasonal and SAD, because many of the symptoms are the same. To diagnose SAD, your doctor will want to know if you have been depressed during the same season and have gotten better when the seasons changed for at least two years in a row.
He or she will also ask if you have common symptoms that occur with SAD, such as being very hungry (especially craving carbohydrates), gaining weight, and sleeping more than usual. Your doctor will also inquire whether a close relative (a parent, brother, or sister) has been diagnosed with SAD.
If you are diagnosed with SAD, several treatment options are available, including:
Doctor-prescribed light therapy mimics the exposure to natural light you experience during summer months. Bright light treatment involves sitting in front of a specially-designed light box for half an hour or longer, usually in the morning. Dawn simulation relies on a dim light going on in the morning while you sleep and getting brighter over time, like a sunrise.
These medications can improve the balance of brain chemicals that affect mood. If your doctor prescribes antidepressants, take them as instructed. Do not stop taking them when you feel better, or you may experience side effects. When you are ready to stop, your doctor will help you slowly reduce the dose.
Some types of counseling, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, can help you learn more about SAD and provide you with tools to manage your symptoms.
Don’t brush off those winter blues as a seasonal funk that you have to tough out on your own. Consider the information about SAD and take the steps to seek help to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the year.
Information provided by TOPS Club, Inc. (Take Off Pounds Sensibly)