What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Q: I just feel so out of it in the winter. Tired, unmotivated, nothing is the same anymore. Could I have seasonal affective disorder?

A: The symptoms do sound like those related to seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD.

This type of depression occurs at the same time every year, typically in the fall and may continue in the winter months. But it has been known to happen in the spring or early summer.

It is important to see a doctor if the symptoms persist. Do not brush it off as a case of “winter blues.” While it is normal to have some days when you feel down, see your doctor if it progresses for days at a time and you lack motivation for the activities you normally would enjoy. Seek medical help right away if you notice patterns of change in sleep or appetite, feel hopeless, think about suicide, or find yourself turning to alcohol for comfort or relaxation.

Winter-onset seasonal affective disorder symptoms include depression; hopelessness; anxiety; loss of energy; heavy, "leaden" feeling in the arms or legs; social withdrawal; oversleeping; loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed; appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates; weight gain and difficulty concentrating.

The cause of SAD is unknown but some factors like genetics, age and the body’s chemical makeup all play a role in developing the condition. A few specific factors include:

Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt your body's internal clock, which lets you know when you should sleep or be awake.

  • Serotonin levels. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin – a brain chemical that affects mood – which may trigger depression.

  • Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the natural hormone melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Treatment for seasonal affective disorder may include light therapy, or phototherapy, which involves sitting in front of a special light box; medications like anti-depressants and psychotherapy.

Here are other ways to treat SAD:

  • Get outside for 15 to 20 minutes daily at noontime. When it is not cloudy outside, there is usually enough light to lift a mood. Also the reflection from snow makes it even brighter.

  • In the office, move your desk or chair closer to a window.

  • Change your diet to include lots of carbohydrates like pasta, potatoes and rice as main courses, and low-fat, sweet carbohydrates such as sweet breakfast cereal for snacks.

  • Buddy up with an exercise partner. Exercise helps reduce seasonal weight gain and improves mood. But because SAD causes a lack of motivation, a buddy will offer encouragement.

  • Learn new coping techniques for depression and get a support network of family and friends to enlist for help with chores and more.

By Kimberly Brown N.P., ThedaCare Physicians-New London.