With the dark and dreary winter months approaching, an issue arises that is forgotten throughout the rest of the year. That issue is seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that is related to the seasons. Symptoms typically start in the fall and continue into the winter months. The specific cause of SAD is still unknown, but there are some factors that may come into play:
1. Your circadian rhythm.
Your circadian rhythm, or biological clock, may be disrupted in winter months when there is a reduced amount of sunlight. That disruption may, in turn, lead to feelings of depression.
2. Drop in serotonin levels.
Serotonin is a chemical in your brain (neurotransmitter) that affects mood. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin level, which can trigger depression.
3. Decrease in melatonin.
Melatonin plays a role in sleep pattern and mood. When the seasons change, melatonin levels may be disrupted, causing symptoms consistent with depression.
Risk factors for developing SAD include: being female; being younger in age; having a family history of SAD; having preexisting conditions like clinical depression or bipolar disorder; and living far from the equator.
Symptoms of SAD are related to those of major depression, including:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having low energy
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having problems with sleeping
- Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide*
More specific symptoms consistent with SAD include:
- Tiredness or low energy
- Problems getting along with other people
- Hypersensitivity to rejection
- Heavy, "leaden" feeling in the arms or legs
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
If you are experiencing multiple symptoms from this list, don't chalk it up to the "winter blues." If you feel depressed for days at a time and no longer find pleasure in activities you once enjoyed, it's time to see your provider. If not treated, SAD can lead to suicidal thoughts or behavior, substance abuse, social withdrawal, or school/work problems.
*Lists taken directly from the Mayo Clinic website