Winter woes: Are you SAD?


Have you noticed that your mood and general emotional well-being takes a dip with the changing seasons? You may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. This common seasonal depression affects an estimated 10 million Americans, while another 10 to 20 percent of people may experience mild SAD.

What is SAD?
Also known as winter depression, SAD is a type of depression related to the changing seasons. For most people affected by SAD, symptoms begin in the fall and continue through the winter. For a rare few, however, SAD starts in the spring and peaks during summer.

SAD causes people to feel gloomy, moody and low-energy. Those suffering from SAD may lose interest in the activities that usually interest them. They have a tendency to gain weight, probably due to their increased craving for carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta. Because of their low energy, they may sleep more, although it rarely results in feeling more well-rested.

Many people with SAD will experience anxiety, tension and an inability to tolerate stress. They may feel guilty, have low self-esteem or feel hopeless and apathetic. They may also go to extremes to avoid social contact and will usually show a decreased interest in any kind of physical contact, including sexual contact. They may also have difficulty concentrating on complex problems or projects.

Who can get SAD?
While anyone can be affected by SAD, experts say that those who are most likely to be affected by include:
  • Women
  • Those who live far from the equator, where winter daylight hours are very short
  • Those between the ages of 15 and 55
  • Those with a close relative who also has SAD

What causes SAD and how is it diagnosed?
SAD and other types of depression can have many of the same symptoms. Your doctor may ask you questions about the nature and pattern of your symptoms in order to diagnose SAD. Lab tests can also help rule out some of the other disorders that can cause similar symptoms, such as hypothyroidism. 

Low levels of serotonin and higher levels of melatonin are believed to be responsible for SAD. Most doctors believe that SAD is due to the reduced amount of sunlight in the fall and winter months, which may result in lower levels of serotonin in a person’s brain. Additionally, the longer, darker hours can cause increased melatonin production. This hormone affects sleep patterns, moods and circadian rhythm, or “biological clock,” which can interfere with a person's usual sleep/wake rhythms.

How is SAD treated?
The most effective treatment for SAD is light or phototherapy combined with psychotherapy and medication. The light suppresses the secretion of melatonin. There has been no research to definitively link light therapy with an antidepressant effect, but it has been shown to be effective in as many as 85 percent of diagnosed cases of SAD. Medication may be helpful, but it may also carry unwanted side effects. Behavior therapy has also been shown to offer limited benefits in the treatment of SAD.

If you are prone to SAD, the best course of action may be to practice preventive measures and reduce symptoms before they occur. This can include beginning light therapy in late summer before symptoms begin, getting more exercise and spending more time outside, and practicing meditation and other stress management techniques.

If you live in the Goshen area and are experiencing symptoms of depression, contact a primary care physician with Goshen Physicians.