Seasonal Affective Disorder: All You Need to Know

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder

In this article we will discuss seasonal affective disorder symptoms, causes and treatment.

Introduction

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a syndrome characterized by depression that reoccurs every year, at a given period or season. It has been observed that it tends to affect people located further away from the equator. It is more likely for the disorder to repeat itself over winters, and then deplete as spring comes around. 

Hence it is also known as ‘winter depression,’. Although a few people may show its symptoms during summer, they eventually feel better by winter. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder: Symptoms

The symptoms for SAD are quite similar to that of depression. The only difference is the nature in which they occur and disappear, which is as the seasons change. They can stay around for 40% of the year, on average.

Depression-related Symptoms:

  1. Loss of interest from daily activities
  2. Feelings of guilt and worthlessness
  3. A long-drawn low mood
  4. Irritable emotions
  5. Low self-esteem
  6. Lack of sleep, or too much of it

Other Noticeable Changes:

  1. Appetite variations
  2. Tiredness or lethargy
  3. Lack of concentration
  4. Anxiety or apathy 
  5. Extreme social isolation

Causes

The causes of SAD cannot be pinpointed. However, it has been observed that the body’s exposure to sunlight may be the reason behind its seasonal pattern. The primary analysis is that the blockage of the sun may result in the hypothalamus of the brain to stop working. This may affect the:

Melatonin Production:

Melatonin is a hormone that is controlled by the brain’s perception of light and darkness. Melatonin is responsible for making the body feel sleepy during the night since it is secreted at higher levels when it is dark. 

This very feature of melatonin makes the person feel tired, dizzy, and extremely sleepy. During winters, because of the lesser hours of sunlight more melatonin is produced, resulting in the disruption of sleep cycles and varied mood swings. 

Serotonin Production:

It is a neurotransmitter that moderates an individual’s mood. It binds to a particular type of protein, to travel around the entire bloodstream. This protein’s secretion is reduced during the winter months, due to its primitive nature of protecting the person from environmental stress faced during that particular season.

Serotonin affects an individual’s appetite, sleeping patterns, and mood. Lower serotonin levels are linked with depression.

Circadian Rhythm:

The decrease in the level of serotonin and melatonin disrupts the body’s 24-hour clock, called the Circadian rhythm. It is synchronized to respond to changes in the amount of light the eye receives, which varies as per the season.

The circadian signal indicates a seasonal change by understanding the days’ length. People with SAD fail to make their bodies and minds adjust to the environment’s patterns.

Risk Factors

A person has the potential to develop SAD much quickly if they are already exposed to the following risks:

Having Major Depression or any Other Mental Disorder:

Depression is known to start worsening with seasonal changes while remaining for a considerable period post-completion of the season too. Bipolar disorder is also a factor that may introduce SAD to the body and mind easily.

Family History:

People who have a family history of depression or SAD are prone to a quicker onset of this condition.

Living Further from the Equator:

SAD is more prominent among the population located either on the far south or far north of the globe. Less sunlight received in these regions is the reason for longer nights and shorter days, especially during the winter months.

Other Categories of People at Risk

Women have higher chances of succumbing to SAD when compared to men. The disorder is also more likely to develop in the younger generations, that is, individuals between the ages of 15 to 30 years.

Psychological factors also come into play. People who are employed in seasonal jobs, or work in shifts that demand night-time involvement, may also have the probability of developing SAD.

Treatments

These ministrations are prescribed by the doctor, and need to be followed according to the procedures given:

Medications:

A physician may prescribe the patient with a category of medicines called smart drugs. They are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) and increase serotonin levels.

SSRIs are the most commonly used form of depressants. The ones available on the market are:

Citalopram (Celexa):

Celexa is also used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorders, social phobia, and panic disorders, besides depression. It may take up to 4 weeks for its effects to occur.

Escitalopram (Lexapro):

Sold under the brand names Cipralex and Lexapro, these are pills that are prescribed for depression, as well as anxiety disorders. It does not give quick results, but daily intake would bring about changes in around 4 to 6 weeks.

Fluoxetine (Prozac):

Apart from depression, it is utilized for the treatment of bulimia nervosa, panic disorder, and premenstrual dysphoric disorder. It is notoriously known as a ‘happy pill’ because of its off-label use.

Another class of antidepressants called bupropion has also been approved to treat SAD. This is a good alternative for escaping the side effects caused by the SSRIs, which include weight gain and loss of libido. 

Aplenzin and Wellbutrin XL are widely available forms of this antidepressant.

Light Therapy:

Phototherapy, or light therapy, works well for SAD patients. It involves the use of a special box or lamp that gives out up to 10,000 lux of fluorescent light, which is around 20 times brighter than indoor lighting devices. 

The steps include sitting in front of the said device, about 12 to 18 inches away from it. This has to be done for 30 minutes daily, and while it does not require to be directly stared at, the light must enter the pupils. Being exposed to this light helps the brain produce more serotonin.

Results can be seen within one or two weeks of using it. Although it has lesser adverse effects than antidepressants, it may tend to cause blurry vision and mild headaches. 

What You Could Do To Contribute?

Along with the treatments given, SAD can also be combatted with these added steps:

Getting Ample Amounts of Sunlight:

Activities that include stepping out in the daylight, such as going for a job, walking the dog, or even grocery shopping, could help get exposure to the sun. Keeping the curtains and blinds open also helps.

Activeness is a Must:

It is crucial to keep the body moving. Minor in-home workouts and doing chores around the house regularly are helpful ways to keep doing some form of activity. It helps relieve anxiety and stress build-up within the brain.

Sleep Schedule:

A maximum of 7 to 8 hours of sleep is a must. These hours should be covered at a stretch and only during the nights. Consistently napping or staying awake during nights should be avoided.

Conclusion

SAD has a history of being ignored by coming under the tag ‘winter blues,’ when in fact, it has the potential of disrupting life completely. The seasonal nature of SAD should not be the reason to take it lightly.