Have you ever felt gloomy on an overcast day? Does your mood get affected by a change in weather? Well, you are not alone. Studies have shown that roughly 3% of the general population suffers from seasonal affective disorder symptoms (SAD). Though this number may not seem a lot in percentage, when put in context of billions of people, it renders a huge sum. Do you suffer from SAD too? Let’s find out.
What is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression which takes place due to a change in season, primarily impacting those in the Northern Hemisphere. It is also known as winter depression (the terms are used interchangeably), due to its high prominence during this season. Although SAD is not limited to winter, it is observed that these symptoms commonly arise during colder seasons due to the shorter length of days, a drop in temperature, more cloud cover and increase in precipitation. This triggers a chemical change in the brain which may lead to symptoms of depression. However there also exists a number of people who experience SAD during summers and feel better during winters.
What are seasonal affective disorder symptoms?
The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are as follows:
- Persistent low mood
- Lethargy and laziness
- Low energy through the day
- Difficulty concentrating
- Poor sleep
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Weight gain
- Increased appetite
- Decreased sex drive
These symptoms may vary based on an individual’s routine and environment.
What are the causes of seasonal affective disorder?
Despite the prevalence of this disorder, the understanding of the science behind it is limited. One theory is that serotonin transporter proteins may have a part to play in the onset of SAD. Some studies show that SERT, a protein which helps in serotonin transport, is usually higher than normal in winters than summers. These high SERT levels, combined with less vitamin D production as a result of less sunlight exposure, leads to lower serotonin activity and results in depression. On the other hand, during summers, these SERT levels are regulated and kept low by the sunlight naturally. This keeps the serotonin activity normal.
Though more sunlight may seem good for SAD, that’s not entirely true. Some people experience symptoms of SAD in summer and spring months as well. Adjusting to high exposure of sunlight and increased daylight hours can be tough for some people as they struggle to match their sleep-wake cycles. This disrupts the circadian rhythm and makes it difficult for the body to match it to the changing seasons. The final result? Changes behaviour, sleep and mood – which are key symptoms of SAD.
Other than the above, there is little knowledge about the causes of seasonal affective disorder and its symptoms.
What is the most common treatment for seasonal affective disorder?
There are a variety of treatments available for seasonal affective disorder. A medical practitioner can suggest the most suitable option based on the symptom severity and medical history of an individual. The list of most common treatments for seasonal affective disorder is as follows:
1. Light therapy: Light therapy requires an individual to sit a few feet away from a bright light for about 30 minutes. This simulates sunlight during dark months and makes the brain produce less melatonin whilst increasing the production of serotonin. Less melatonin will make you feel more energised and improved serotonin levels will result in a positive mood.
2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This is a type of psychotherapy which helps by amending a person’s perspective of their environment. Changing a person’s behaviour towards certain situations, scheduling new habits and learning new ways to manage stress can improve mental health and reduce the symptoms of SAD.
3. Antidepressants/SSRI: In severe cases, the use of antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may become necessary. These medications alter the chemical composition of the brain and regulate levels of hormones and neurotransmitters to cure depression-like symptoms.
Top five tips to feel better?
The top five tips to feel better and combat seasonal affective disorder symptoms are:
- Get regular exercise
- Maintain a healthy diet
- Steer past addictive substances and alcohol
- Let your loved ones help you in tough situations
- Engage in ‘feel-good’ activities more often
Remember, people don’t instantly jump out of depression, and combating seasonal affective disorder cannot be achieved in a day. A careful and systematic approach will go a long way in improving the symptoms of SAD. Keep your friends and family close and do more of the things that you love!