What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Each year, as the sun begins to set earlier and earlier and the temperature drops, you notice you feel more sluggish and sleepy.
Maybe you get more irritable, or your productivity at work drops. You want to eat more, especially those comfort foods you fall back on when times are rough.
And watching a sad movie or even a touching commercial? Forget it. Your emotions seem to have a hair trigger.
What’s going on?
If you notice that your symptoms follow a seasonal pattern – they show up in the fall, worsen in winter, and get better come spring – you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
What Is SAD?
SAD is a type of depression that typically appears based on the changes in seasons.
For most people, symptoms begin in the fall and start to decrease or disappear in spring. However, there are rare cases of SAD where symptoms appear in the spring and lessen in the fall.
What Are Some Symptoms of SAD?
While Seasonal Affective Disorder looks different for everyone, some of the common symptoms of SAD include:
- Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
- Changes in appetite, either eating less or eating more
- Loss of interest in favorite activities
- Desire to sleep more, especially during daytime hours
- Lack of energy
- Cravings for carbohydrates
- Difficulty concentrating
- Heaviness in arms or legs
- Relationship problems
- Thoughts of death or suicide
What Causes SAD?
No one knows the specific cause of SAD. There are, however, several theories as to why some people experience the above symptoms in the colder months and others don’t.
Some potential causes of SAD include:
- Changes to circadian rhythm: Your body’s natural sleep/wake cycle is known as your circadian rhythm. In the winter months, when natural light is less abundant and you rely more on artificial lights, your circadian rhythm is thrown off.
- Drop in serotonin levels: Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that helps regulate your mood. Sunlight stimulates the production of serotonin, and decreased exposure to sunlight causes your body to produce less serotonin.
- Decrease in melatonin: Another neurotransmitter, melatonin regulates your sleep cycles. Without ample sunlight, production of melatonin decreases.
In addition, doctors have identified some risk factors that may make you more likely to develop SAD, such as:
- Family history of depression or SAD
- Current diagnosis of major depressive or bipolar disorders
- Living far from the equator, where there’s less sunlight in the winter
How Is SAD Treated?
Depending on your individual symptoms and your treatment plan recommended by your doctor or therapist, there are a variety of things that can make the symptoms of SAD better, allowing you to get back to your life.
Some common treatments for SAD include:
- Diet: While it may be difficult when you’re struggling, maintaining a healthy, balanced diet can improve your symptoms.
- Exercise: When you exercise, your body produces endorphins. Regular exercise can help lift your mood and decrease the negative effects of SAD.
- Therapy: Just sitting down and talking with your therapist on a routine basis can help you work through the symptoms.
- Medication: Anti-depressants and mood stabilizers are commonly used by people with SAD.
- Bright light therapy: Sitting under a bright light (10,000 lux or greater) for up to 30 minutes per day during the darker months has been shown to help the body produce more serotonin and melatonin, as well as regulating circadian rhythms, decreasing the symptoms of SAD.
You and your doctor can discuss whether some or all of these treatments are right for you.
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