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Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a seasonal condition characterized by symptoms similar to depression during either winter onset or spring onset getting worse as the season progresses. SAD is categorized as a form of depression. Treatment includes therapy and medication. While the symptoms vary depending on the season, the overall condition is described by patients as “having the blues.”

Winter onset symptoms include a feeling of hopelessness, depression and anxiety, loss of energy, social withdrawal, oversleeping & loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, cravings for carbohydrates resulting in weight gain and loss of concentration. Spring onset symptoms include anxiety, insomnia, irritability, agitation, weight loss, poor appetite and increased sex drive.

The specific cause of SAD is undetermined while many contend there are three factors that may contribute to the condition – sunlight, melatonin and serotonin.

The sun may shine a bit less at certain times of the year, like fall and winter. This may disrupt the natural rhythm of the body resulting in symptoms of SAD. Living farther from the equator increases risk of having SAD and coincidentally there is less sun farther from the equator.

The second factor is the levels of Melatonin in the body. Melatonin occurs naturally in the body and helps regulate moods and sleep. Decreased supplies of melatonin can cause insomnia and depression. This factor however does not take into consideration the seasons. Your doctor can help you understand more about melatonin and if taking it is right for you.

The third factor, also not directly related the season of the year, is serotonin, a neurotransmitter (chemical in the brain) that helps regulate mood. Decreased sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin and lead to depression. This brings up an interesting observation.

Residents of sunny cities like Phoenix, Arizona, for example, are primarily transplants from colder parts of the country like New York City and Chicago. They describe the “winter blues” as a thing of the past. Perhaps this is due to the sun shining in Arizona for more than 300 days of the year allowing outdoor activities nearly year round. Being outdoors means more sunlight and decreased incidence, at least anecdotally, of depression and other symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Being active also decreases the incidence of depression.

It is important to understand this disorder and to know it is treatable. If symptoms continue for more than a few days it is recommended that patients see their physician.