But for the estimated 10 million Americans suffering from seasonal affective disorder—commonly referred to as SAD—adjusting to the winter months can be much harder.
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that occurs during certain times of the year—most often in the fall or winter. While experts don’t know exactly what causes SAD, it is thought to be the body’s reaction to a lack of sunlight during the darker months of the year. This reduced sunlight—along with shorter days—can cause a drop in serotonin levels in the brain, triggering depression. SAD can affect anyone, but women, teenagers, and those with a history of depression or bi-polar disorder are at greater risk.
The symptoms of SAD are very similar to those for general depression, including loss of interest in typical activities, feeling sad or hopeless, anxiety, low energy, and weight gain.
As with any mental health issue, there is not one simple solution to treat SAD. However, there are many effective ways to manage it and stay healthy and happy during the winter:
- Psychotherapy. Talk therapy can be very helpful, either alone or in combination with other approaches. A mental health professional can help patients develop positive ways to cope with their symptoms.
- Exposure to sunlight. Exposure to sunlight is a critical part of treating SAD. Spending time outdoors in the sunshine, or at least opening the shades to let the sunlight in are the best options. People who suffer from SAD on a yearly basis, or those that can’t easily get outside may also consider light therapy, which by exposes them to artificial sunlight through a special type of lamp.
- Exercise. As with any type of depression, regular exercise is very beneficial in helping relieve symptoms, and also helps offset the weight gain that so many SAD sufferers experience. Exercise in the outdoors--hiking, biking, or just a walk around the block--is ideal, but any type of activity will help. Many people also find yoga to be effective in helping them manage their symptoms.
- Medication. Antidepressants such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) can be very effective for many people. However, antidepressants aren’t one-size-fits-all, so it may take a few tries to find the right medication.
- Vitamin D. While not definitive, some studies show that a lack of vitamin D may contribute to the development of SAD. People suffering from SAD may consider taking a vitamin D supplement if they can’t get enough from sunlight and their diet.
If you think you could be suffering from SAD or another form of depression, schedule an appointment to talk with your doctor right away. With the proper diagnosis and treatment, SAD doesn’t have to leave you struggling to cope until spring.
This article first appeared in the March 2019 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.