For those of us who are winter sports enthusiasts, the onset of colder weather signals the beginning of snow-related fun. Yet for others, the shorter days and colder temperatures trigger a cascade of symptoms that are anything but pleasant. Feelings of depression, anxiety, and moodiness are symptoms commonly associated with what scientists have termed Seasonal Affective Disorder, or quite aptly, SAD.
SAD is a unique form of depression that is seasonal and cyclic, meaning that symptoms appear and disappear at about the same time each year. Typically this is found to be when the days grow shorter as the Winter Solstice appears; symptoms may last until the advent of spring. Most commonly found to occur in women, and in individuals between the ages of 15 and 55, experts believe SAD may be caused by a lack of sunlight.Since circadian rhythms are light-sensitive, it may be that interference with one’s sleep cycle has much to do with this process. The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt the body’s internal clock, which lets us know when we should sleep or be awake. This disruption may lead to feelings of depression.
SAD has also been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and a lack of sunlight in winter. Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, has been associated with SAD. This hormone, which has been linked to depression, is produced at increased levels in the dark. When the wintry days are shorter and darker, measurable increases in melatonin can be detected in affected individuals. In addition, lower levels of serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in Seasonal Affective Disorder. Reduced hours of sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, perhaps leading to depression.
Another cause of SAD is living far from the equator. Seasonal Affective Disorder appears to be more common among those individuals who live far from the equator. This may be due to an even more pronounced decrease in sunlight hours during the winter in these locations.
Since SAD is considered a form of depression, scientists often find that there is somewhat of a hereditary component. As with other types of depression, some studies have shown that people with Seasonal Affective Disorder are more likely to have blood relatives who are also afflicted with the condition.
As previously mentioned, the symptoms associated with this disorder do in fact mimic those of traditional depression:
-a lack of interest in normal activities
-craving foods high in carbohydrates
All individuals suffering with SAD may not experience every symptom. For example, some people experience normal energy levels while carbohydrate craving may be extreme. Sometimes a symptom is even opposite the norm, such as weight loss as opposed to weight gain. In any case, these symptoms should not be taken lightly, as they may become exacerbated and develop into a more serious level of depression.
How, then, can SAD best be managed and treated? One simple solution is the exposure to extra levels of sunlight during the colder months. Doctors often prescribe light therapy to help alleviate severe symptoms. There are two forms of typical light therapy:
– Bright Light Treatment, which involves sitting in front of a “light box“ for half an hour or longer each day, usually in the mornings;
– Dawn Simulation, in which a dim light goes on in the morning while the individual is still asleep, and gradually gets brighter, approximating a sunrise. Light therapy is easy to use and has been proven to be quite successful for most people suffering with SAD. Very often individuals may start to feel better within a week or so after embarking on light therapy. The only caveat here is that one needs to stick with it and use it every day until the season changes. If not, the depression will usually return.
Regular exercise is yet another way to combat the ill effects of SAD. Being active during the daytime, especially first thing in the morning, may help provide more energy as well as offer an opportunity for extra exposure to daytime sunlight. Moderate exercise such as walking, riding a stationary bike, or swimming is a good way to get started.
Even with these treatment options, Seasonal Affective Disorder can become severe for some individuals. It is important to take signs and symptoms seriously. As with other types of depression, SAD can worsen and lead to problems if it is not treated. These can include:
-suicidal thoughts or behavior
-problems at school or work
Treatment can help prevent complications, especially if the condition is diagnosed before symptoms become overwhelming and debilitating. Counseling sessions with a trained psychotherapist, and occasionally the prescribing of antidepressant drugs, can be powerful tools in alleviating the difficulties associated with severe SAD.
It’s normal to have some days when we feel down, especially when it so cold and dreary outside for months on end. But what may seem like a typical case of the “winter blues“ for some may in fact have more serious repercussions for others. If you find yourself feeling down for days at a time with no apparent explanation, and you can’t seem to get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, see your healthcare professional. With the proper treatment, the cold shorter days do not have to be SAD at all!
4. Eastman, Ch. I.; Young, M. A., Fogg, L. F., Liu, L., & Meaden, P. M. (1998). Bright light treatment of winter depression: A placebo-controlled trial. Archives of General Psychiatry, 55, 883-889.
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6. Lurie Sj, Gawinski B, Pierce D, Rousseau SJ. Seasonal affective disorder. American Family Physician. 2006;74:1521-1524.
About the Author
Cathleen Kronemer is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for 22 years. Look for her on www.WorldPhysique.com.
She welcomes your feedback and your comments!