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Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder: Causes, Treatments & Prevention

With fewer hours of sunlight and gloomy weather outside of the window, many people feel a bit blue during the winter season. This can be totally normal, natural, and nothing to worry about. But there’s a more serious type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that can be debilitating and very difficult to snap out of.

To help you recognize the early warning signs of SAD in yourself or loved ones, here is some information about this condition’s causes, treatments, and prevention tips.

Photo credit: Barksdale Air Force Base

Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Depression comes in many forms, but SAD is one that directly correlates to the seasons of the year. The body’s biological clock is thrown off in the winter months due to reduced sunlight. This may cause SAD, as well as drops in serotonin and melatonin levels. The brain uses these natural chemicals to affect your mood and to create healthy sleeping patterns.

Researchers aren’t definitively sure what causes SAD to occur in some people but not others. But there are certain risk factors that make SAD more likely.

People who have a family history of SAD or depression in general are typically more likely to develop this condition. Individuals living with bipolar disorder, for example, commonly see their symptoms get worse with seasonal changes. Where you live also has a big impact on the development of SAD. For instance, people who live very far north or south of the equator experience extreme levels of decreased sunlight during the winter months, which is the biggest cause of SAD. Women tend to have more SAD diagnoses than men, and younger adults more frequently than older adults.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

The symptoms of SAD mirror many other types of depression symptoms, but the time of their onset is what sets them apart. You’ll typically start feeling symptomatic in the late fall and then feel the symptoms go away in the spring. Common symptoms of SAD include losing interest in favorite activities, changes in appetite and weight, difficulty concentrating, feeling hopeless, having low energy, experiencing sleeping troubles, and thoughts of suicide.

Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder

One of the most common treatments for SAD is light therapy, which involves specialized light boxes that provide bright light upon waking up. This type of light mimics sunlight and is believed to support the production of brain chemicals linked to healthy moods. It may also help to take a vitamin D supplement or eat more foods rich in vitamin D, such as fish, cheese, egg yolk, mushrooms, and fortified milk.

Some SAD patients benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy to identify, address, and alleviate negative thoughts. Understandably, many patients are hesitant to take SSRI drugs for SAD due to their risks of serious side effects and a desire to pursue more natural approaches first.

Photo credit: Eielson Air Force Base

How to Prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder

As the days get darker and the temperatures turn colder, there are things that you can do now to prevent SAD and reduce your risk of feeling down during the winter. Start practicing mind-body techniques, such as meditation or tai chi, to get in tune with how your body is feeling and reacting to seasonal changes. It’s also a good idea to make your home as sunny and bright as possible right now by opening up blinds, trimming trees that block incoming sunlight, and perhaps adding some skylights in your ceiling.

Also, set some healthy and positive goals for yourself for the winter months. One good winter goal is to get out to exercise regularly, whether than means bundling up for the outdoors or heading to your local gym. Even on cold and cloudy days, a little bit of outdoor light can make a big difference in how you feel. And of course, if you can afford it and get away from work or school, it’s always fun to plan a winter getaway somewhere warm and sunny. Not only will this give you something to look forward to on dreary days, but a vacation might rejuvenate you enough to get through the rest of the season with ease.

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