By: Miranda Martin
We are now entering what may be the dreariest time of the year. Many of us are returning to campus after a few weeks at home or on vacation enjoying the winter break, the weather is cold, and daylight is a precious commodity. All things considered, it seems pretty natural to be feeling down this time of year. However, these feelings may not be so typical; for some people, this time of year may actually cause a specific disorder.
Known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, this condition is linked to seasonal changes for a few reasons. Though the cause is unknown, researchers have pinpointed several factors that point to SAD including seasonal changes interrupting the body’s production and regulation of melatonin, lowered levels of serotonin in the body which can result from decreased sunlight exposure and interruptions in circadian rhythms due to decreased sunlight exposure. Interestingly, this disorder is more common in women; in fact, three out of four patients with SAD are women. The most common ages for onset are 18 to 30 and it is more prevalent in northern areas likely due to lower amounts of sunlight.
Symptoms of SAD include symptoms of depression (such as hopelessness, fatigue, irritability, etc) that occur at a particular time of the year for a few years in a row. Thankfully, treatment regiments have been developed that can offer patients relief from their symptoms. Light therapy without ultraviolet wavelengths, used for about thirty minutes in the morning, has been shown to be effective in treating patients until their natural remission, usually occurring in spring or summer. Some patients have also used antidepressants with success, though recently a review of studies concerning these medications and SAD has said that no real conclusions can be drawn from these studies due to their quality. Cognitive behavioral therapy has also been explored as a potential treatment option for patients with SAD. Studies have shown that it is effective and that patients who undergo cognitive behavioral therapy only have lower levels of depression one year later than patients who undergo light therapy only. If you have symptoms of SAD, it is important to discuss the various treatment options with your doctor, especially because nearly half of patients do not experience relief from light therapy alone.
It also may be possible to prevent symptoms of SAD by taking proactive measures. For example, beginning light therapy in early fall, before the typical onset of symptoms, can reduce the occurrence of symptoms. Additionally, some physicians believe that lifestyle is an important factor in minimizing SAD symptoms. For example, they suggest that stress management techniques, regular exercise and spending time outside may be beneficial. It is important to note that timing of preventative measures is imperative due to the fact that the most common months to suffer from SAD are December, January and February.
If you are concerned that you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of SAD, please contact a medical professional to discuss your treatment options.