Anyone feeling blue during the shorter, darker days of autumn and winter has good reason. The sunlight—or at this time of year, the lack of it—has a huge effect on your physical and emotional wellbeing. If you find yourself getting down during the long winter months, only to find yourself perking up when sunny spring days arrive, you may have a type of clinical depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This depression is triggered typically during the winter when night comes early and the weather can be cloudy and bleak. SAD is considered more severe and debilitating than simply being tired of winter.
SAD will go away on its own when warmer, brighter days arrive, but that doesn’t help much during the full five months in which you can feel miserable. Here’s how to recognize if you’re suffering from SAD, and some strategies for dealing with these winter feelings.
Risk factors for SAD
All of us are at risk of developing SAD, but there are factors that can increase one’s likelihood of developing it:
- People who live far from the equator where winter daylight hours are very short
- People between the ages of 15 and 55. The older a person becomes, the less the risk of developing SAD.
- People with family members who have had SAD
- Having depression or bipolar disorder
It is estimated that between four percent and six percent of the population in the United States suffer from SAD, but up to another 10 percent to 20 percent may experience it in a milder form.
How would you know if you have SAD?
SAD comes in many shapes and forms; two different people with SAD can each have different sets of symptoms.
Here are some typical symptoms associated with winter-onset SAD:
- Eating more (especially carbs)
- Fatigue and feeling unproductive
- Sleeping more than normal; finding it hard to get out of bed
- Difficulty concentrating
- Irritability and anxiety
- Increased sensitivity to rejection
- Avoidance of social situations
- Loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
- Feelings of guilt or hopelessness
- Physical problems such as headaches
- Less physical activity
Surprisingly, there can also be a summer-onset SAD people may develop. Symptoms of this type can include loss of appetite, weight loss, insomnia, irritability, anxiety and agitation.
What causes SAD?
The main reason for most people who have SAD is usually related the lack of sunlight as the days get shorter in the fall and winter with a higher frequency of cloudy days. Reduced sunlight has effects on the body more than we may realize, as researchers have discovered. A lack of sunlight might cause a drop in your levels of serotonin, melatonin and vitamin D, as well as impacting your circadian rhythm.
To get an accurate diagnosis, it is best not to self-diagnosis but to go to your primary care physician. He or she can do a physical exam along with lab tests to rule out any other conditions that have symptoms similar to SAD. Your doctor may also want to refer you to a psychologist or a psychiatrist if your symptoms are especially prevalent.
Fortunately, there are ways to treat SAD that can be effective for many people. The three main ways to treat SAD include:
- Light therapy
Since the 1980s, light therapy has been used to make up for the lack of sunlight during the fall and winter. Light therapy involves sitting in front of a special light box every day for around 20 to 60 minutes. The box emits a bright white light mimicking natural sunlight, which causes a change in brain chemicals regulating your mood.
Besides sitting in front of a light box, other light therapies include wearing a visor that emits light or using a “dawn simulator,” in which this light turns on early in the morning in your bedroom, mimicking natural sunlight as it gradually increases in brightness. This allows you to wake up naturally without using an alarm.
There are few side effects from using light therapies, like eyestrain, headache, fatigue and irritability. Do not rely on tanning beds as a form of light therapy. Tanning beds use ultraviolet (UV) rays, which can harm your eyes and can cause skin cancer.
- Behavioral therapy
To help identify negative thought patterns, behavioral therapy could be of benefit. In this type of therapy you will lean to replace negative thoughts with more positive thoughts, while helping to learn healthy ways to manage symptoms of SAD.
If symptoms of SAD are severe, your doctor might recommend medication such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) to treat depression. Sometimes it can take more than one medication for severe symptoms to subside.
Other ways to treat SAD can include:
- Opening draperies and blinds to let in as much natural sunlight as possible in your home. Also sitting during the day next to a window and keeping your environment as bright as possible.
- Going outdoors frequently. Even on cold, cloudy days, being outside in the light can help with feelings of SAD.
- Remain physically active as exercise boosts endorphins relieving stress.
Dr. Samadi is a board-certified urologic oncologist trained in open and traditional and laparoscopic surgery and is an expert in robotic prostate surgery. He is chairman of urology, chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital. He is a medical contributor for the Fox News Channel’s Medical A-Team. Follow Dr. Samadi on Twitter, Instagram, Pintrest, SamadiMD.com, davidsamadiwiki, davidsamadibio and Facebook