Are You Experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Published online: Feb 26, 2021 Articles, East Idaho Health Michael Brandes, Bingham Healthcare Orthopedics & Sports Medicine
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Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall (right around the time the sunlight starts changing) and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer. 

Fortunately, there are options to brighten your outlook.

Out of Rhythm

Do you start to slow down during the long, chilly winter season? Do you find it harder to get up on dark mornings? Do you gain weight even though you try to watch your diet around the holidays?

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. More than 10 million Americans suffer some form of winter-related depression, according to Psychology Today, and six percent of that population are affected by the most dramatic “winter blues:” seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

For centuries, scientists and observers of human nature have noted that winter’s shorter days and longer nights have a psychological effect on people, particularly those living in northern climates, exactly like Idaho. But this phenomenon wasn’t officially acknowledged until the 1980s, when psychiatrist Dr. Norman Rosenthal fully described SAD and pioneered the use of light in its treatment. 

Our bodies shift their circadian rhythm, or 24-hour biological clock, to match the seasons. However, since our daily schedules remain fixed, or our lives fall out of sync with our biological clocks during the winter months. As a result, many people start exhibiting symptoms of mild depression—excessive sleeping, lethargy, anxiety, mood changes, loss of libido, social withdrawal, overeating and pronounced weight gain, and depression. 

The prime months associated with winter seasonal depression are December, January, and February. However, symptoms can start as early as September and last into April. SAD can set in at any age, but the average onset is usually between the ages of 18 and 30. And, according to American Family Physician, SAD is four times more common in women than in men. Because the symptoms of SAD recur year after year around the same time, it takes about three years of monitoring to achieve a diagnosis.

The Melatonin Connection

In recent years, scientists have linked SAD to melatonin—a hormone produced by the tiny pineal gland at the base of the brain. The amount of melatonin released into our bloodstream is regulated by the amount of light that passes through the eyes—the less light, the more melatonin. When darkness falls, melatonin lowers our body temperature and makes us start to feel sleepy. Similarly, when the days shorten in winter, less light is available, and melatonin is released into the system for longer stretches of time. 

People experiencing milder “winter blues” can often chase away their symptoms by taking in more natural light. However, more severe cases of SAD often require daily phototherapy—a treatment that involves sitting in front of a light box that gives off high doses of concentrated, bright light, which is up to 20 times brighter than normal indoor lighting.

Most studies have shown that about 75% of individuals experiencing SAD show improvement when using light therapy. However, if it’s not enough, doctors may combine the treatment with psychotherapy and non-sedative selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) including sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), and fluoxetine (Prozac).

Make the Winter Season Bright

You can start beating back the bleakness of wintertime by spending as much time as you can outdoors (or gazing out your window), exercising on a regular basis, and watching your diet. However, if winter blues continue to drag you down, contact a mental health professional for immediate medical assistance. There’s no reason to hibernate until spring.

Beating Back the Blues at Bingham

Bingham Healthcare’s mental health specialists help clients of all ages struggling with a range of issues, including depression, familial and marital discord, grief and loss, substance abuse, sexual dysfunction, serious and persistent mental illness, sexual and domestic abuse, codependency, anger management, personality disorders, and acute and post-traumatic stress disorders.

Bingham’s mental health specialists see patients in Idaho Falls, Blackfoot, and Pocatello. If you or a loved one require the services of a mental health counselor, please call 208-785-3800 to schedule an appointment.

In addition, all of Bingham’s mental health counselors can schedule Telehealth medicine visits. These are appointments online or over the phone if you are unable to make it to an office. 

For more information on all of Bingham’s mental health counselors, visit www.BinghamMemorial.org/Mental-Health-Counselors

Click here to read the February issue of Idaho Falls Magazine.

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