A: According to Mental Health America, some people suffer from symptoms of depression during the winter months, with symptoms subsiding during the spring and summer months. These symptoms may be a sign of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a mood disorder associated with depression and related to seasonal variations of light. SAD affects half a million people every winter between September and April, peaking in December, January and February.
A diagnosis of SAD can be made after three consecutive winters of the following symptoms if they are also followed by complete remission of symptoms in the spring and summer months:
• Depression: Misery, guilt, loss of self-esteem, hopelessness, despair and apathy.
• Anxiety: Tension and inability to tolerate stress.
• Mood changes: Extremes of mood and, in some, periods of mania in spring and summer.
• Sleep problems: Desire to oversleep and difficulty staying awake or, sometimes, disturbed sleep and early morning waking.
• Lethargy: Feeling of fatigue and inability to carry out normal routine.
• Overeating: Craving for starchy and sweet foods resulting in weight gain.
• Social problems: Irritability and desire to avoid social contact.
• Sexual problems: Loss of libido and decreased interest in physical contact.
• As sunlight has affected the seasonal activities of animals (i.e., reproductive cycles and hibernation), SAD may be an effect of this seasonal light variation in humans. As seasons change, there is a shift in our “biological internal clocks” or circadian rhythm, due partly to these changes in sunlight patterns.
• Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, has been linked to SAD. This hormone, which may cause symptoms of depression, is produced at increased levels in the dark. Therefore, when the days are shorter and darker the production of this hormone increases.
Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder
• Phototherapy or bright light therapy has been shown to suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin. Although, there have been no research findings to definitely link this therapy with an antidepressant effect, light therapy has been shown to be effective in up to 85 percent of diagnosed cases.
• For mild symptoms, spending time outdoors during the day or arranging homes and workplaces to receive more sunlight may be helpful.
• If phototherapy does not work, an antidepressant drug may prove effective in reducing or eliminating SAD symptoms, but there may be unwanted side effects to consider.
If you think you or a family member is suffering from SAD, make an appointment and visit with one of our care givers. Call the Earlham Clinic in Earlham, (515) 758-2907 or Health Trust Physicians Clinic (515) 462-2950 in Winterset. We thank Mental Health America for providing the information on SAD.
Information provided by Chris Nolte, director, Public Relations and Development, Madison County Health Care Systems, 300 West Hutchings, Winterset, 515-462-9749.