If you feel down for several days and seem to be losing pleasure in life, you may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a cyclic condition that can cause severe changes in behavior and mood.
Diagnosing SAD can be difficult because its symptoms — depression, decreased sexual interest, fatigue, and increased appetite (especially for carbohydrates) — can be similar to other mood disorders. SAD usually occurs during the winter, affects more women than men, and is more common in higher latitudes.
Researchers hypothesize that reduced sunlight during the winter disrupts the circadian rhythms that manage the body’s internal clock. It may also affect the release of brain chemicals that regulate sleep.
You may be diagnosed with SAD if you have symptoms of depression for at least two consecutive years during the same season, followed by non-depressed periods. There must be no other explanations for the mood changes.
Symptoms of SAD are often triggered by a lack of exposure to light and tend to drastically decrease, or even go away completely, when light exposure increases. Spending time outside during the morning hours when sunlight is strongest, brightening up your living area by opening curtains or blinds, and getting plenty of exercise are all good ways to increase light exposure and decrease symptoms.
Light therapy, the main treatment for winter SAD, requires sitting a few feet from a light box that is 10 to 20 times brighter — 10,000 lux output is optimal — than ordinary indoor lights for at least 30 minutes a day, usually in the morning. Daily light therapy reduces SAD symptoms in up to 80% of patients. However, it doesn’t always produce immediate results and may require use over an extended period of time. The amount of light needed to reduce or eliminate symptoms varies by person.
Medications, such as antidepressants, may be prescribed for individuals with SAD depending on the intensity and duration of the symptoms and their impact on personal functioning.
If you are diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder, you can take steps to help relieve and overcome your symptoms. Follow your doctor’s recommendations, get plenty of exercise, maintain proper nutrition, and stay involved in activities with family and friends.