As autumn wanes and winter knocks at the door, a familiar uninvited guest threatens to show up on the doorstep. Seasonal affective disorder, appropriately referred to as SAD, is a type of depressive disorder that may present itself each winter season. Far surpassing the typical winter blahs, SAD can have a powerful impact on the afflicted individual’s ability to function in daily life.
Severe seasonal affective disorder symptoms are not a figment on one’s imagination, but real effects that can impair concentration, mood, and productivity. SAD impacts about 5% of the U.S. population, with about 80% of those being women. When a man is diagnosed with SAD, however, his symptoms tend to be more intensified than a woman’s. In certain geographical regions, SAD can affect about 10% of the population. Generally, the further away one resides from the equator, the better chance they have to acquire SAD.
What Causes Severe Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder is basically depression that occurs in alignment with the winter season. It is still unknown as to why only a small percentage of people are sensitive to the seasonal shifts in light exposure, leading to SAD, although some causal factors have been identified. The symptoms may first emerge in the late fall, escalate during wintertime and then subside when spring arrives. Several factors can contribute to someone developing this type of depression, including:
- Reduced sunlight exposure. With shorter days and prohibitive weather conditions keeping people indoors more, SAD can develop from sunlight deprivation. A lack of sun exposure can affect the production of serotonin levels.
- Increased melatonin levels. Melatonin is a hormone produced in the brain at higher levels when it is dark, which can induce sleep. In fact, many people take melatonin supplements as a natural sleep aid. For people who wish to be productive and energetic in the winter months, the increased melatonin can cause them to feel lethargic and fatigued instead.
- Vitamin D deficiency. Sunlight provides a natural source of vitamin D, so if we become deficient in this important nutrient it can impact serotonin levels, the neurotransmitters associated with mood regulation.
What Are Severe Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms?
Because SAD is a depressive disorder, the same diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder will apply. The variant is that the symptoms of depression only occur in the winter months for at least two consecutive years, leading to the SAD diagnosis. Symptoms of depression include:
- Persistent low mood, sadness, and feelings of despair
- Sleep disturbances
- Change in eating habits leading to weight gain or loss
- Feeling worthless or hopeless
- Trouble concentrating
- Loss of interest in activities, hobbies, or social events
- Thoughts of suicide
In addition to the above symptoms of major depression, severe seasonal affective disorder symptoms also include:
- Excessive sleeping
- Emotional hypersensitivity
- Loss of interest in sex
- Weight gain
- Craving carbohydrates and sugary foods
- Extreme fatigue
- Social withdrawal or isolating behaviors
Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Treatment for SAD may include both traditional depression treatment protocols and specific steps that offset the issues associated with SAD. These include:
Antidepressant drug therapy
The usual first line of treatment for a depressive disorder is antidepressant drug therapy. Antidepressants work by rebalancing neurotransmitters, specifically serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These brain chemicals are associated with mood and emotions, energy, concentration, and memory.
In some cases, the severe SAD symptoms may be also related to an emotional issue, such as loss and grief, divorce, trauma, job loss, moving, or any serious life event. Psychotherapy provides an outlet for discussing the emotional pain associated with the event and the therapist can guide the individual through the healing process.
Light Therapy. Because a lack of light or sun exposure is at the heart of severe SAD, light therapy, or phototherapy, is an appropriate treatment for this type of depression. The individual uses a “light box” for a specified number of hours per day, which mimics natural outdoor light, while they watch TV, read, eat meals, etc.
Vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D deficiency is a common feature in individuals with severe SAD. Dosing of 400-800 IU each day are recommended for individuals with this type of depressive disorder.
Exercise. Regular exercise is an essential treatment component that provides multiple benefits for individuals with SAD. Just getting outside for a brisk 20-minute walk each day will provide additional sunlight exposure, as well as increase serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine production associated with improved mood, sleep, and overall wellbeing.
The Treatment Specialist Offers Important Information Regarding SAD Symptoms and Treatment
The Treatment Specialist is a leading online source of information in the fields of mental health, dual diagnosis, and addiction. The Treatment Specialist provides individuals suffering from depression the specific information about severe seasonal affective disorder symptoms. This source material can help them understand how this type of depression develops and what treatment options are available to improve quality of life in the winter months. For more information about SAD, please contact The Treatment Specialist today at (866) 644-7911.