Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also commonly known as the “winter blues”, is a form of depression that comes and goes, in a seasonal pattern. The lack of sunlight in the winter months contributes to symptoms of SAD. Symptoms include fatigue, loss of energy, depression, crying spells, irritability, trouble concentrating, body aches, loss of sex drive, oversleeping, and overeating. Often, individuals may also experience an increase in junk food consumption, carbohydrate cravings and weight gain. Seasonal affective disorder seems to be more prevalent in people who are living farther away from the equator. Biochemically, individuals with SAD have higher levels of melatonin and decreased levels of serotonin. Melatonin is the hormone that contributes to sleep, whereas serotonin is the “feel good” hormone that contributes to positive mood. The longer hours of darkness in wintertime, especially at northern latitudes, contribute to higher levels of melatonin. A reduction in sunlight causes the serotonin levels to fall. Typically, melatonin production occurs in the evening hours in preparation for sleep, however, individuals with SAD will have higher daytime melatonin levels, contributing to the symptoms mentioned above. There are no specific diagnostic tests for SAD, thus, diagnosis is made based upon symptoms.
One treatment of choice is light therapy with the use of SAD lamps. Using the light box at 2500 lux 2 hours daily will improve symptoms and may cause complete remission in some patients. Using the light therapy first thing in the morning helps to shut down melatonin production and start serotonin production. It is not recommended to look directly at the lights, instead, engage in other activities such as writing, reading or eating. Individuals should remain oriented with their head and body toward the light, meanwhile concentrating on surfaces illuminated by the light. As much as 60 to 80% of people do get relief from the light therapy.
A daily exercise routine helps to relieve stress, build energy, and increase mental and physical well-being. It is important to build physical activity into one’s lifestyle before symptoms of SAD take hold. Naturopathic remedies and acupuncture can also be used to alleviate symptoms.