More than just the “Winter Blues”

With the east coast still battling severe winter weather, closer attention must be paid to understanding Season Affective Disorder.  SAD affects most people in winter but it can hit in summer too. Here’s what you should know about this widespread disorder.

SAD is a very real problem for as much as 25 percent of the population. If that sounds like a shockingly high number, maybe it’s time to brush up on your SAD knowledge and see if your winter (or summer) blues are really something more.

What is SAD?

First, an explanation of that 25 percent stat. Overall, the American Academy of Family Physicians estimates that about 4 to 6 percent of population suffers from winter depression and another 10-20 percent of people have mild SAD. That’s probably more people than you thought and some of that has to do with the fact that SAD comes in many forms.

Types of SAD can actually be separated into three categories: winter depression, summer depression, and reverse seasonal affective disorder. Winter and summer depression are almost exactly what they sound like, although for both the symptoms can begin before their namesake season. So, winter depression may begin in fall for some and spring may mark the start of summer depression.

Reverse seasonal affective disorder is a little different, as it impacts people with bipolar disorder. It is characterized by symptoms of mania or hypomania that are brought on by spring/summer seasonal changes.

The Causes of SAD

No one is quite sure why some people develop SAD but seasons are known to alter some important bodily processes, including serotonin output, melatonin levels, and circadian rhythms. Changes in any of these can cause depression. Circadian rhythms are related to the sleep-wake cycle, as is the hormone melatonin. Melatonin and the neurotransmitter serotonin also affect mood. Certain seasonal concerns, like showing off your bikini body or affording Christmas presents have also been cited as possible triggers for SAD.

Symptoms of SAD

SAD affects everyone differently but there are some likely symptoms you can look out for. Unlike, reverse SAD (which is a manic state) both winter and spring depression have symptoms most people would recognize as common to other types of depression. The difference is these symptoms occur only during certain seasons. They include feeling of sadness, anxiety, or hopelessness, loss of interest in things you used to enjoy (called anhedonia), decreased energy, and suicidal thoughts. Along with these well-known indicators, there are also symptoms unique to each type of SAD.

Winter depression:

• Laden feeling in extremities (as though your arms or legs are extra heavy)

• Social withdrawal

• Oversleeping

• Weight gain

Summer depression:

• Irritability

• Increased sex drive

• Insomnia

• Weight loss

Reverse SAD:

• Constantly elevated mood

• Hyperactivity

• Agitation

• Rapid thoughts and/or speech

• Enthusiasm disproportionate to the situation

If you think you may have SAD or reverse SAD, tell your doctor. Unfortunately, there is no test for SAD but a history of your symptoms should be enough for a proper diagnosis.

Treatments for SAD

For some people, winter depression can be addressed with light therapy. This is basically a very bright light that mimics sunshine. People who use light therapy sit in front of their light boxes for about 30 minutes each day. Still, light therapy alone doesn’t help everyone (not even everyone with winter-specific SAD) and sometimes antidepressants or psychotherapy are recommended.

Some people also use supplements such as St. John’s wort, melatonin, and Omega-3 fatty acids to address winter or summer depression. As always, it’s advised you talk with your doctor before trying any of these as they may not mix well with certain meds or medical conditions. There are also non-medical treatments for winter and summer SAD, which include spending more time outdoors, letting in sunlight as much as possible, exercising, and spending time with positive people.

In general, if you have SAD or reverse SAD, it best first step is to consult with a medical professional to work out what treatment can best address your seasonal symptoms.