Thursday, November 29, 2012

Guide to Seasonal Affective Disorder

Monika Pis, PhD, CPNP

Are you among the 10-20% of the U.S. population who experiences the winter blues? Many people develop “cabin fever” during winter months when it’s cold and gloomy outside, and the days get dark earlier. These are common and normal reactions to the changing seasons. However, if you feel depressed, fatigued, and hopeless, you may have a Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or Seasonal Depression.

Winter SAD usually starts in fall or winter and ends in spring or summer. A rare form of SAD is summer SAD that begins in late spring or early summer and ends in the fall. An estimated 4-6% of the general population experience SAD.

SAD can occur at any age, even in children. However, it’s most common among adult women. Also, SAD is more prevalent among people living further away from the equator, where seasonal changes are more noticeable.

What causes SAD? 
It is unknown what causes SAD. However, changes in the availability of sunlight seem to be the likely culprit. Scientists postulate that decreased exposure to sunlight disrupts the circadian rhythm. This biological clock regulates mood, sleep, and hormones, so when it is disrupted, it may lead to depression.

Another theory proposes that winter depression arises from increased production of melatonin in winter months. Still, other research suggests that decreased sunlight exposure contributes to decreased production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood, thus possibly leading to depression.


How is SAD treated?
There are three treatment modalities for SAD: light therapy, medications, and psychotherapy.

Since exposure to sunlight improves symptoms significantly, light therapy tends to be the main treatment for SAD.

Some people with SAD benefit from therapy with antidepressants or other medications, especially if symptoms are severe.

Psychotherapy may help to identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that may be worsening symptoms.

If you think that you are SAD or depressed, contact your health care provider ASAP!

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