Seasonal Affective Disorder, known as “SAD” or “winter depression” or “winter blues”, is a type of depression which has a seasonal pattern. Usually episodes of depression appear at the same time each year (during dark winter time). If you feel perfectly healthy during spring and summer, if you start feeling uncomfortable by the end of autumn and have depression symptoms during winter, it means you have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). In most cases the SAD symptoms begin in the autumn as the days start getting shorter and maximum SAD symptoms can be observed during most short days in December, January and February. Women with Seasonal Affective Disorder react adversely to the decreasing amounts of sunlight and the colder temperatures as the autumn and winter progress.
It should be mentioned that some women could suffer from atypical form of Seasonal Affective Disorder – although Seasonal Affective Disorder usually appears in the fall and winter, sometimes clinical symptoms of SAD could appear during summer (instead of winter or in addition to winter).
Seasonal Affective Disorder is about four times more common in women than men. Increased frequency of Seasonal Affective Disorder was noted in countries farther away from the equator. In general, women of all ages can be affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder but the highest frequency of SAD was discovered in 22-25 year old women.
Seasonal Affective Disorder causes and risk groups
Most scientists suggested that the main cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder is linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter days of the year – actually lack of sunlight could trigger disturbances in body sleep-wake cycle and in circadian rhythms (the body’s internal clock). Disturbed cycles provoke problems in serotonin (brain chemical) responsible for mood.
Another theory suggests that light stimulates a part of the brain (mainly hypothalamus) which controls mood, appetite and sleep. So lack of light can change mood (making people sad), appetite (making people gain weight or become anorexic) and sleep (triggering sleep disturbances).
Actually lack of light could affect the body production of melatonin and serotonin as well as body’s circadian rhythm. Women who live in geographic places with long winter nights are at greater risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder. At the same time, low levels of vitamin D in the blood are found to be associated with higher occurrences of the SAD.
Seasonal Affective Disorder could start during the teen years (more often in girls) or in adulthood (more often in women). Women with family history of SAD are in higher risk of getting Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms
Symptoms usually start and finish at about the same time every year. Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder usually build up slowly in the late autumn and winter months – majority of women notice SAD symptoms in September-October and they mention reduced symptoms in April-May.
Two main symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder are: low mood and a lack of interest in life. But most women with SAD could have also other symptoms such as:
•Feeling sad, grumpy, moody or anxious;
•Reduced activity compared with previous normal activities and lost interest in usual activities;
•Reduced energy and ability to concentrate;
•Unhappiness, hopelessness and irritability;
•Increased need and duration of sleep;
•Overeating or binge eating or food craving (mainly carbohydrates – bread, cakes, pasta);
•Social withdrawal (isolation).
Seasonal Affective Disorder diagnosis
A main diagnostic criterion for Seasonal Affective Disorder is dependence of all depression symptoms from seasons. If you experience depression symptoms such as reduced mood, sadness, absence of interest in life or work or love, food craving, etc. during most short dark winter days and usually at the same time each year, you could have Seasonal Affective Disorder.
There is no objective test for SAD – main diagnostic symptoms are your depression symptoms connected to the season.
Seasonal Affective Disorder treatment
Light therapy can be very effective for Seasonal Affective Disorder. There are two types of light therapy for SAD:
•Bright light SAD therapy – when you sit in front of light lamp for limited time (30-120 minutes) in the morning.
•Dawn simulation for SAD – when dim light goes on in the morning while you sleep, and it gets brighter over time (similar to natural sunrise/sunset).
Light therapy is effective for most women suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder – positive effects could be observed after 1-2 weeks. Light therapy should be used for long period – for whole autumn-winter season. Light therapy could be stopped in late spring (once days become longer and sunshine period prolonged).
Sometimes doctor prescribe antidepressants for SAD – these medicines can improve the balance of brain chemicals that affect mood.
Counseling also could be a useful component of effective treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
During whole period of treatment it is recommended to be active because during the daytime (especially in the morning) physical activities could help you have more energy and feel less depressed.
Seasonal Affective Disorder prognosis
Treatment of the Seasonal Affective Disorder usually effective and the outcome is usually good. But sometimes women could experience Seasonal Affective Disorder throughout whole life.