HCA Midwest Health
December 07, 2016

Do shorter, darker days signal a predictable change in your mood? If your symptoms range from sluggishness to mild depression to an inability to go about your day, you may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD is a serious form of depression most often triggered by winter’s shorter daylight hours and fleeting sunshine. Approximately half of patients diagnosed with SAD have recurrent symptoms the following year, making it very important for patients to be aware of their symptoms as the seasons begin to change. About 6 percent of adults in the U.S. suffer from SAD. Symptoms of SAD include:

  • Fatigue
  • Increased need for sleep
  • Decreased levels of energy
  • Weight gain
  • Increase in appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased desire to be alone

What causes SAD? Circadian rhythms, the 24-hour cycle regulated by light that humans normally live by, are disrupted by decreased sunlight. Longer spans of darkness cause our bodies to release the sleep-producing hormone melatonin earlier each evening and turn it off later each morning.

Who’s at risk?

Dr. Marisa Argubright, family practice physician at College Park Family Care Center says, “Individuals who are between the ages of 20 and 30 years old, who have a previous history of depression and/or anxiety and those who live at higher northern latitudes are at increased risk of developing SAD. Individuals who suffer from conditions such as ADHD, eating disorders and social anxiety disorder are also at increased risk of experiencing SAD.

“In some studies, over 60 percent of individuals with SAD have a family history of SAD. Fifteen percent of those individuals have a first-degree relative who also suffered from SAD.

Treatments throw light on the subject

If you’re struggling day after day, you don’t have to plow through the long winter by yourself. Talk to your doctor. According to Dr. Argubright, “The first-line treatment of SAD consists of antidepressant medications. Depending on the severity of an individual's symptoms, prior treatment history and preferences, light therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can also be added for improved symptom management. Some patients choose seasonal treatment while others opt for continuous treatment if they feel their symptoms are severe enough to warrant a prolonged treatment regimen. It's very important to follow up with your physician while being treated for SAD and maintain a good working relationship to optimize treatment outcome.” 

Taking care of yourself this time of year

Dr. Argubright added, “Even if you don't suffer from SAD, as the weather changes and the days get shorter, it's very important to get regular aerobic exercise, maintain good sleep habits and focus on eating a well-rounded diet to help your body adjust to the changing seasons.”

Source: National Institutes of Health nih.gov