Feeling depressed? You could have seasonal affective disorder.

February 4, 2014 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn

It’s been a particularly tough winter across most of the country and the long, dark days can dampen anyone’s mood. For between 14 million and nearly 19 million people according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness and other experts, however, it’s more than a passing depressed mood. It could be a serious condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or Seasonal Depression. Could you be among those suffering from SAD?

What is SAD?

SAD is a form of major depression with symptoms that develop each year during the winter, often peaking in January and February, and die down during the spring and summer. More women than men are diagnosed with the condition, and it affects people in their 20s, 30s and 40s more frequently than older people.

Researchers haven’t uncovered a definitive cause for SAD, but studies suggest that a number of factors may contribute to the development of the condition, including:

  • lack of light, which may disrupt circadian rhythms (your internal biological clock) and interfere with the production of melatonin (a sleep and mood-regulating hormone) and the neurotransmitter serotonin
  • vitamin D deficiency
  • variations in the genes that produce a light-sensitive pigment in cells in the retina and play a role in controlling circadian rhythms

Because it can be difficult to tell the difference between symptoms of clinical depression and seasonal depression, you should consult your physician if you experience:

  • Depressed mood or sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of energy
  • Increase in hours spent sleeping or insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Problems concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in activities and socializing
  • Decreased sexual desire
  • Overeating and craving sweet or starchy foods
  • Significant weight gain

As with any ongoing feelings of depression, the symptoms of SAD should be taken seriously.

What type of treatments work for SAD?

There is a range of treatments for seasonal affective disorder. As with any type of depression, not all treatments work for all patients, so you and your physician will have to tailor a treatment plan that’s effective for you.

  • Light therapy: A specially designed box emits bright light designed to simulate daylight. The box emits the full spectrum of fluorescent light with harmful UV rays screened out. Going outdoors for at least a half hour every day, even on cloudy days, is also recommended in addition to light box therapy.
  • Dawn simulation: Another form of light therapy, this features a device that puts out a dim light that grows brighter over time, imitating the sunrise. You place the simulator at your bedside, with goal of resetting your body’s circadian rhythms.
  • Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT): This approach is also often combined with light therapy. In fact, one study found that cognitive behavior therapy or a combination of CBT and light therapy was significantly more effective than light therapy alone in treating and preventing the recurrence of SAD.
  • Antidepressants: Some physicians include antidepressant medications as part of treatment for SAD.  Both Prozac and Wellbutrin have been found to be effective for treatment of seasonal affective disorder in a number of studies.
  • Supplementing with vitamin D: If your physician finds that your blood levels of vitamin D are low, taking a vitamin D supplement may help ease your symptoms.
  • Lifestyle changes: Getting regular exercise and eating a healthy diet may improve mood and increase your energy level energy. Some studies have linked an imbalance in the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in your diet with an increase in the risk for depression. Consider eating more omega-3 rich foods (fish, nuts, and canola oil) and reducing the amount of foods that contain omega-6 fatty acids (corn and sunflower oils).

If you’re experiencing persistent depression symptoms this winter, talk with your health care provider. He or she can refer you to a specialist who can help you determine if SAD is the underlying cause and what treatment approach could work for you.