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Signs and Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

DrSugar Schools Us on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

DrSugar is in the house! This week she discusses the emotional impact of Winter.

With Winter around the corner (or perhaps rearing its ugly head already), I’m sure that a majority of FitSugar readers are experiencing cooler weather and shorter days. With this in mind, I thought a great topic to discuss this week is seasonal affective disorder.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is cyclical and seasonal, meaning it comes and goes at the same time every year. According to the Mayo Clinic, most people who have seasonal affective disorder have symptoms that start in the Fall and continue into the Winter months. Less often, people suffer from seasonal affective disorder that causes depression in the Spring into the Summer months. Keep reading to learn more about it.

The Mayo Clinic lists the symptoms of Winter-onset seasonal affective disorder as: depression, hopelessness, anxiety, loss of energy, social withdrawal, oversleeping, loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, appetite changes (especially an increase in cravings for foods high in carbohydrates), weight gain, and difficulty concentrating. The symptoms associated with Summer-onset seasonal affective disorder include: anxiety, insomnia, irritability, agitation, weight loss, poor appetite, or increased sex drive. People with seasonal affective disorder need not have all the symptoms to have the diagnosis. The symptoms can range from mild to severe.


WebMD reports the following as risk factors for seasonal affective disorder: people who live in areas where Winter days are very short or there are big changes in the amount of daylight in different seasons, female gender, people between the ages of 15 and 55 (with the risk decreasing as you progress in age), and people with a family history of seasonal affective disorder. Even though the risk is higher in people ages 15 to 55, it can begin at any age, with the main age of onset between 18 to 30 years.

The Mayo Clinic reports that the exact cause of seasonal affective disorder remains unknown. However, the American Psychiatric Association and the Mayo Clinic do discuss some likely causes. They report that it is linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours in Winter. It is also possible that a change in circadian rhythms (aka your internal biological clock), which can affect your sleep/wake cycle and in turn lead to feelings of depression. Melatonin, a sleep related hormone, has also been associated with seasonal affective disorder. The changes in seasons can disrupt the balance of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood. It is possible that a drop in serotonin levels may play a role as well, as reduced sunlight can possibly cause a drop in serotonin levels.

Left unrecognized or untreated, the symptoms and signs of seasonal affective disorder could progress into serious problems including: suicidal thoughts or behavior, substance abuse, issues with school or work, or possible social withdrawal. Prompt recognition and treatment can help prevent these complications, thus it is very important that you speak with your physician if you have any of the above symptoms or signs mentioned in this column.

Diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder will be diagnosed with a thorough evaluation that includes a detailed history and physical exam, as well as medical tests if indicated. The diagnosis can be made by your physician or mental health professional. Treatment for seasonal affective disorder can include light therapy, medications, and psychotherapy. Light therapy utilizes a box that emits light to simulate outdoor light that appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood and is widely used and effective. Alternatively, the Mayo Clinic lists alternative therapies for seasonal affective disorder including: increasing exposure to sunlight during the Winter months and regular exercise, and mind-body therapies such as acupuncture, yoga, and meditation.

Hopefully, this information will be useful to all as we go into the Winter months, in terms of making you aware of this condition and its symptoms. Ultimately, if you find you have any of these symptoms, please seek evaluation with your physician or a mental health professional.

Have a question for DrSugar? You can send it to me via private message here, and I will forward it to the good doctor.

DrSugar's posts are for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment recommendations. Click here for more details.

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