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Up to a half million Americans suffer as the seasons change. For someone with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) the onset of winter can mean weight gain, feelings of depression and lethargy, and in some northern areas, as many as 15% of people suffer from a mild form of the disorder and 2-3% suffer severely. SAD reduces quality of life, affects professional performance and reduces well being, and although it's often missed or misdiagnosed, simple non drug treatments often work very well to reduce or eliminate symptoms.

Most people with SAD start to feel symptoms during the fall, as days get shorter, and start feeling a lot better in spring, as days lengthen. In some rarer cases, this is reversed, with people feeling worse during summer and better in the winter months.

Women seem more susceptible to SAD and children and teens don’t seem affected by the disorder. People in more northerly regions are at greater risk of the disorder.

Why Do People Get SAD?

Scientist don't yet know what causes SAD, although most researchers believe that fluctuating changes in sunlight over the course of a year affect our circadian rhythms in a way that can induce depression in some.

Other theories include:

  • The Serotonin Theory - Sunlight is known to influence the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to depression.
  • The Melatonin Theory – Levels of the hormone melatonin can increase during winter. Melatonin is also associated with depression.

A lot remains unknown about what causes the disorder and about what makes one person vulnerable to changes in the season, and another person indifferent.

SAD Symptoms

Symptoms vary greatly between people and very few people experience all possible symptoms. Some common SAD symptoms include:

  • Depression or hopelessness
  • Weight gain and changes in appetite (craving carbohydrates)
  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Fogginess or difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Spending less time in social situations
  • Oversleeping

People afflicted with the less common summer SAD may experience symptoms that include:

  • Insomnia
  • Increased sex drive
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Weight loss

Doctors sometimes miss SAD, as the symptoms closely mimic those of other forms of depression. The re-occurrence and cessation of symptoms over the seasons for 2 consecutive years, without other obvious cause for the symptoms, indicates SAD.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment

In northern areas of the country, as many as 15% may suffer from mild SAD with a further 2 or 3% suffering more serious symptoms. A number of treatments can help to reduce the way SAD makes you feel.

In some cases, simple acts such as spending more time outdoors during the winter, trying to stay near windows with lots of light while indoors, avoiding the overeating of carbohydrates and getting regular exercise can alleviate the worst of the symptoms.

In other cases, a doctor may recommend the use of a special light box, which emits a very powerful high light, mimicking the effects of the sun's rays. People using a light box for SAD sit beside the box for a few minutes each day and many SAD sufferers find that this unique type of light brings real relief.

People that don't respond to light box therapy are often prescribed anti depressant medications, such as SSRIs.

Talk to Your Doctor

If you dread the coming of winter as a time of lowered mood and energy, you may well suffer from a treatable mental illness, with a solution as easy as literally changing a light bulb! Talk to your doctor about the way you feel, and get help for SAD.

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Page last updated Aug 05, 2010

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