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Winter Blues? Bummer Summer?

Do you struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)? Read more!

Winter Blues

Do you find that your mood and energy level take a dip around the same time every year? If so, you may struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). As we reach the end of winter and enter spring, now’s the time to learn about this disorder.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that relates to the changes in seasons. Someone suffering from SAD will have many symptoms similar to depression, such as moodiness and exhaustion, but these symptoms only show up when the seasons change.

When Does it Strike?

Most people associate SAD with winter months, but this disorder can also hit during summer months. When someone struggles with Seasonal Affective Disorder, symptoms usually appear during late fall or early winter then disappear once the sun returns in spring and summer. However, some people have the opposite pattern – their symptoms begin in the sunnier months of spring and summer then go away in the fall and winter. No matter which type of SAD you have, symptoms start mild but become more severe as the season progresses.

What are the Symptoms?

Many SAD symptoms can be mistaken for depression – the major difference is that with Seasonal Affective Disorder, symptoms only plague you during that particular season every year. Depending which season of Seasonal Affective Disorder you have, symptoms may vary.

Winter Seasonal Affective Disorder

Also known as “Winter Blues” or “Winter Depression”, this type of Seasonal Affective Disorder is the most common and affects half a million people every winter between September and April, peaking in December, January and February. Many people with winter SAD suffer from these symptoms:

  • Tension/inability to tolerate stress
  • Lethargy/inability to carry out a normal routine
  • Irritability/difficulty concentrating
  • Tiredness/low energy
  • Problems getting along with other people/no desire to be around others
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection
  • Extreme mood changes
  • Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes
  • Weight gain/overeating

Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder

While this type of Seasonal Affective Disorder is much less common, it can happen. Individuals struggling with summer-onset SAD may have these symptoms:

  • Depression
  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
  • Weight loss
  • Poor appetite
  • Agitation or anxiety

What Causes SAD?

While a specific cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder is unknown, these factors almost always play a part:

  • Biological internal clock (circadian rhythm): reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter can cause winter-onset SAD. The decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.

  • Serotonin levels: a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
  • Melatonin levels: the change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

How is it Diagnosed?

While it’s easy to to shrug off the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder and attribute them to just having a bad day, it’s important to not ignore these feelings if they persist. It’s normal to have days where you feel down, but if you have a number of down days in a row where you find you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, schedule an appointment with your provider. Even more pressing, if your sleep patterns and appetite change, you feel hopeless to the point of suicide or you turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation – it’s time to contact your provider.

Women and young adults are most at risk for having Seasonal Affective Disorder. Three out of four SAD sufferers are women. The main age of onset for this disorder is between 18 and 30 years of age.

Are There Treatments?

There are a number of things you can do to try to subside the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder:

  • When you are inside, sit near windows
  • Get regular, moderate exercise/physical activity
  • Eat a well-balanced diet
  • Try to find time to get outside each day
  • Learn relaxation techniques

While these are easy, everyday techniques that may help with your Seasonal Affective Disorder, sometimes there’s nothing you can do that will get you out of your seasonal slump. That’s when it’s time to make an appointment with your physician. Prior to your appointment, make a list of your symptoms – be as detailed as you can with examples if possible. This will help your provider determine the severity of your situation for diagnosis and treatment.

After meeting with your provider, it’s possible he or she will suggest phototherapy or light therapy. In light therapy, you are exposed to bright light through a special light therapy box. Phototherapy mimics natural outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. In some cases, physicians will prescribe antidepressants. Consult your doctor to determine the right method for you.

What Now?

As we approach the first season change of the year, now is the time to pay attention for Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms. As winter comes to a close, take note of your overall mental health. During the past few months if you’ve experienced a combination of the symptoms above – pay attention to how these symptoms change as we move into spring and summer. Do they go away? Do they get worse?

Upon reflection of Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms, if you think you may be a candidate for the disorder – contact your doctor. Need a primary care provider? Contact The Iowa Clinic at 515.875.9000.

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