Seasonal Affective Disorder, often referred to as SAD, is a mood disorder that, well, in short, makes us feel sad (it’s a surprisingly accurate acronym). SAD encompasses a lot more than that, though. Do you notice your mood changing around the same time every year? (No, I’m not referring to the last day of the Saks Friends & Family sale.) You may notice it much more in the winter months, when our days are getting shorter and our leg hair longer, a general feeling of sadness that then shifts into a change in appetite or sleeping patterns. Many people experience severe symptoms that last months and affect their day–to–day behaviour and activities. This is what SAD is.
By definition, SAD refers to recurrent depressive episodes typically seen in the fall and winter. Why it’s more prevalent in the winter may have to do with the season’s lack of sunlight and our melatonin production. Melatonin is produced by a gland in our brain called the pineal gland and it plays a role in our sleep/wake cycle. When sunlight decreases, our production of melatonin increases, which results in increased sleepiness and lethargy.
Of course, other theories exist as to what causes SAD. Some believe it has to do with an imbalance of serotonin, a mood–regulating neurotransmitter, in the body. A deficiency in Vitamin D may also play a role. SAD’s true etiology is SADly (hahaha) unknown.
So, what are SAD’s symptoms and how do you know if you have it? Well, you definitely won’t be able to diagnose yourself based on this article, so please don’t go telling everyone that the Jills diagnosed you with SAD. Instead, talk to your doctor or healthcare provider.
But here are a few key SAD symptoms to look out for:
- Feeling of sadness, hopelessness or worthlessness
- Thoughts of suicide
- A change in appetite; craving carbs or sweets
- Weight gain
- Decreased energy
- Difficulty concentrating
- Decreased social interaction, libido and interest in activities you previously enjoyed
Typically, a medical professional diagnoses your SAD symptoms by evaluating, over a specific period of time, whether or not you meet the depression criteria (DSM). Once you’ve been diagnosed, your doctor will determine the type of treatment that’s best suited for you.
A common treatment is light therapy, which is pretty simple: it’s a process in which a patient submits to a bright, broad–spectrum light shone on their head and body for about 30 minutes. Those who respond to light therapy typically see results within one to two weeks, but it’s important that they continue the treatment until natural sunlight can provide sufficient topical penetration.
Those who don’t respond to light therapy are often prescribed antidepressant medication. You can also get a prescription for Vitamin D but all North Americans should take Vitamin D during fall and winter, as research has found that we all lack it. A naturopathic doctor can also prescribe natural SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). But again, please speak to your healthcare provider before diagnosing or treating yourself.