What is Seasonal Affective Disorder – SAD?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is perhaps one of the most misunderstood conditions within the spectrum of mental health. Part of the confusion about SAD relates to this legitimate mental health concern being mixed up with conditions like “Cabin Fever” or generically applied to cold weather situations.
While being stuck inside all day due to frigid temps and icy winds certainly can impact mood, cabin fever is not the same as having SAD. In truth, the onset of seasonal affective disorder has more to do with available sunlight more than anything else.
This article will provide a basic, working definition of Seasonal Affective Disorder, offer common SAD symptoms and then move on to provide 10 concrete facts you should know about this form of wintertime depression. A brief rundown of treatments for SAD are offered for you to consider as part of a comprehensive treatment approach for dealing with this challenging form of depression. I’ve included a poll at the end for you to partake in should the spirit move you.
Are you ready to learn more about seasonal affective disorder?
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal Affective Disorder goes by many names, including winter depression, winter blues and seasonal depression to name a few. We most often hear about SAD during the winter months but in truth, SAD can strike during spring and summer, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychological Association.
Let’s jump right in!
Symptoms of SAD
Focusing only on the winter type, here are some common symptoms of SAD:
- Loss of appetite
- Gravitation towards high carb foods and chocolates
- Weight gain
- Difficulty with concentrating
- Symptoms abate typically with a change in seasons.
- Pattern of symptoms of 2-years or more
Essentially, people with SAD during winter feel “blah”, meaning they don’t want to do much of anything and report feeling emptiness inside.
At its core, we are talking about a person with SAD living with a form of depression. This is important to note as you will see in the following 10-facts you should know about Seasonal Affective Disorder.
SAD: 10 Facts You Should Know
Fact #1: SAD is not a stand-alone disorder
Perhaps the biggest misconception about SAD is that it is a stand-alone disorder. In fact, SAD is considered to be a specifier within the larger spectrum of major depressive disorder (recurrent) that has seasonal attributes.
Translation – in plain-speak, you need to first receive a diagnosis of depression with a seasonal component in order to truly have SAD. It used to be that SAD was diagnosed as its own disorder however; changes in the new version of the DSM now place SAD as a kind depression offshoot. This is important because a specifier of SAD under the depression umbrella helps to further bolster the seriousness of this disorder and its impact on mood.
Fact #2: Cold weather does not cause SAD
While cold weather may cause many people to experience a case of the blues because they are forced to remain in doors, SAD really is not connected to outside, surface temperatures. Instead, the science tells us that SAD tells us that the onset of SAD is caused by a lack of natural sunlight. This lack of light somehow impacts brain chemicals, such as serotonin and melatonin, which influence mood.
It is important to note the correlation between weather changes and lack of sunlight. When days are shorter and sunlight is less available, people tend to head outside less. Isolating, lack of physical activity and lack of vitamin D can exacerbate symptoms of SAD.
Fact #3: You may crave carbs and chocolates
One of the symptoms of SAD relates to craving carbohydrates and chocolates. The reason is that carbs are sources of energy for the body. When we have a case of SAD, we typically feel less energy and less of desire to “move”. The urge to take in carbs may be your body’s way of trying to create more energy.
Chocolates are sometimes craved by people with SAD because they contain the amino acid, tryptophan, which is a precursor of the brain chemical, serotonin. Serotonin acts as a mood stabilizer and lifter within the brain. Lack of this chemical substance is thought to have a depressive impact on mood.
SAD Bonus Tip: The mood lifting benefits of chocolate should not be considered a permission slip to load up on lots of candy bars. While these little treats may taste good, they are often loaded with sugars and unhealthy fats. You may experience a temporary mood increase after gobbling down a bunch of chocolate but remember, what goes up, must come down – meaning your mood. It’s called a sugar crash.
Fact #4: Anxiety is a normal part of SAD
It is often said that depression’s best friend is anxiety. This is very much the case when working through a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder. While it is common to think that SAD makes us feel “down”, it is just as common to feel a bit anxious.
Anxiety in the context of Seasonal Affective Disorder often manifests in feeling restless, with pent up energy that can feel like it has nowhere to go. Some people experience the anxiety in the form of frustration.
SAD Bonus Tip: Cabin fever is not the same as SAD. While the cold weather outside may cause you to be sick and tired of sitting your home, it’s not the same as having SAD. They can feel the same but you have to look at the cluster of symptoms in their totality. Also, in order to be diagnosed with a SAD specifier for depression, you need to have at least a 2-year history of symptoms. Finally, the symptoms must remit when the seasons change.
Fact #5: SAD is not confined to winter
While it is common to think that SAD is a wintertime disorder, the reality is that SAD can happen during other seasons, like spring and summer. It is important to note that this form of SAD is not all that common.
Typically, we see the “warmer cases” of SAD in climates that experience year-round warm weather. This type of SAD can be triggered by higher heat levels and humidity.
Fact #6: Higher latitudes more prone to SAD
While anyone can develop a case of seasonal affective disorder, it most commonly occurs in higher latitudes. For winter-type SAD, this means people living in Chicago, New York and Minneapolis are more prone to developing a case of “the winter blues” than folks living in Houston, Los Angeles or Miami.
This fact makes sense when you think about shortened days during the autumnal and winter solstice. Daylight savings time also impacts the number of hours we measure “daytime” and by extension, available sunlight.
Fact #7: Northern European decent SAD factor
Scientific research studies suggest that people of northern European decent may be more prone to developing a case of seasonal affective disorder.
This fact is in line with fact #6, which relates to people in higher latitudes being more prone to coming down with a case of SAD.
Fact #8: Heredity may be a factor in SAD
Some lines of research studies suggest that heredity may be a factor for some people in the development of seasonal affective disorder. It is believed there is a genetic connection between serotonin secretions and a person’s ethnic background.
Levels of melatonin secretion and a person’s genetics and skin complexion (i.e. fair skin) seem to be related, according to these same lines of research. A lack of melatonin is thought to contribute to the onset of depression in SAD.
Fact #9: Women are more likely to develop SAD
According to the research, women report having cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder 8 times more than men. Ongoing research continues regarding gender differences and SAD however, some studies suggests that female hormone secretion levels may be part of the dynamic.
If you are a female between the ages of 15-55, you are more likely to develop a case of SAD. In older adults (55+) SAD occurs less frequently. SAD can occur in children and teen-agers.
Fact #10: There are three levels of SAD symptoms
Remember, SAD is a specifier of depression, which means the general symptoms of depression apply.
Treatment of SAD
There are a number of effective treatments available for seasonal affective disorder, including several natural ones. Before continuing however, it is important to get evaluated by your medical doctor to rule out any physiological causes for depression.
Let’s look at a few of the treatment options:
One of the most effective ways to combat seasonal type depression is through the use of a specially made SAD light-box. The light from the box artificially mimics pre-dawn natural sunlight, which in turn stimulates and then elevates the production of depression fighting brain chemicals.
You will want to get a light-box that has at least “10,000” lux. The term lux is a 25 cent phrase for lumen, which represents a unit of light measurement.
Typically, a person will use the light-box in the morning for about 30-minutes. Some people place their SAD lamp about a foot or so away from them while they sit on a couch. Others place the light-box next to their bed and then set a timer. While you do not need to sit directly in front of the light-box in order to experience benefits, it is important that you somehow face the light. For example, placing the SAD lamp on an angle so that it is in your peripheral vision is fine.
Potential side effects of SAD lamps, which are usually rare, can include increased irritability, eye strain, headaches and fatigue. These symptoms usually abate upon discontinuing usage of the light-box. You will want to talk to your medical doctor if these symptoms persist.
Finally on this point, it is important to note that SAD lamps emit all of the different colors of the light spectrum, which is required for effective light therapy. Tanning beds do not give off the same type of light. An easy way to remember this is that SAD LAMPS are created to mimic pre-dawn sunlight. Other artificial sources, like tanning beds, do not.
Although relief from SAD symptoms using a light-box can happen quickly for some, it may take several weeks for you to feel better. This is because it takes time for the brain to secrete the necessary chemicals to “push-back” against SAD related depression.
By keeping your body physically active and challenged, you are helping to increase anti-depression brain chemicals, such as serotonin and endorphins. Even a simple walk for 15 minutes may help you feel better as part of a comprehensive plan to work through SAD. It is important to gain medical clearance before engaging in any form of exercise, including strength training.
Tip: Once you get the green light from your doctor, be sure to read about the five gym accidents to avoid.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy
There exist a number of medications that are used for the treatment of depression, including SAD related depression. Currently, antidepressants, fluoxetine (Prozac) and bupropion (Wellbutrin) have been approved by the FDA for the treatment of SAD because the research indicates they are effective.
You will want to speak with your medical doctor or psychiatrist about the use of medications during a consultation to discover if medications are an option for your situation.
If you suspect you have seasonal affective disorder, you should make an appointment with your doctor. If your physician does not have experience with treating SAD, you may be offered a referral to another provider or to a psychiatrist. Your doctor will likely go over the potential risks and benefits of the various treatment options described here.