Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that occurs during the winter when daylight hours are at a minimum. SAD is sometimes referred to as the "winter blues", and affects a significant portion of society to varying degrees.
Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder
It is common knowledge that SAD occurs when we experience shorter daylight hours. However, researchers differ in opinion as to why these short days result in Seasonal Affective Disorder.
One possible reason is that people get less sunshine during winter hours, resulting in vitamin D deficiency. This makes sense when one considers that human beings as a species are accustomed to spending a large amount of time outside, where we can soak up the sunshine thereby getting the vitamin D that our bodies need to function properly.
Another possible reason is a hormonal imbalance due to the decreased sunlight exposure. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter brain chemical, and serotonin levels decrease when we get less exposure to sunlight. Low serotonin levels can result in serious depression.
There may also be a cyclical factor at play. All human beings have an "internal clock" that is commonly referred to as the "circadian rhythm", and this internal clock (which dictates when we sleep and when we wake up), when disrupted, can lead to depression.
Finally, there is also a basic psychological factor at work. During the winter time many of us commute to work when it is dark, and it is also dark by the time we head back home. During the spring, summer and fall there is enough daylight to get outside and enjoy the outdoors after a hard day’s work (e.g. spend time in the garden; take the dog for a nice long walk, etc.). This is less enjoyable, if not outright impossible, during the winter time.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
The following are all symptoms of SAD:
- Moodiness, anxiety and “feeling down”.
- Loss of interest in activities that are normally part of a regular routine.
- Abnormal weight gain.
- Feeling tired, along with sleeping more.
- Decrease in energy levels.
- Decrease in social activities (i.e. anti-social behavior).
- Changes in appetite.
- Difficulty maintaining concentration.
There are numerous things that people can do to alleviate symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder:
- Get outside more often and soak up that sunshine! This is an obvious no brainer. If you don’t like the cold weather bundle up with lots of warm clothing (dressing in layers is recommended so that you can remove outer layers if you over-heat while outside). Your body will absorb that much needed vitamin D. Not only that, but forcing yourself to get physically active will also have benefits.
It is a personal decision whether or not to use sun screen when going outside. Keep in mind, however, that while sun screen does block out UV rays it also decreases the absorption rate of vitamin D.
- Get more physical exercise. As mentioned above, physical exercise while outside is preferable. However, going to a gym or doing any sort of physical activity (e.g. playing a game of squash, etc.) will also help to alleviate depression.
- Light therapy, which involves exposure to artificial light sources. There are two types of light therapy: exposure to a bright light for a short duration, often done in the morning. The other type is where a light is used to simulate dawn. Before waking a dim light comes on, and gradually grows brighter as wake-up time draws near. Note: if light therapy is helping to alleviate SAD depression then stick with it, even after you start feeling better!
- Vitamin D supplements. While the jury is out on whether or not vitamin D deficiency leads to depression, there are still other positive affects of maintaining vitamin D levels. Vitamin D (in particular D3): helps maintain the immune system (thereby helping to avoid the common cold and flue bug); promotes good bone and muscle health; and helps your body absorb and process calcium.
- Anti-depressants can help people with depression. However, we urge our readers to exercise the utmost caution when considering this alternative. Many antidepressants can actually lead to greater depression and even suicidal thoughts and tendencies. In addition they can be difficult to get off of once a person has used them for extended periods of time. Please do your research on this subject before moving forward with this treatment!
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects many people to varying degrees. While the cause (or causes) of SAD can be debated, the fact is there are simple yet effective treatments that can be used to decrease or even completely nullify this particular type of depression.Sources: