When I first heard about Seasonal Affective Disorder about a decade ago, I thought it was a joke. SAD? It seemed like something made up to capture feelings of an off day. But, over the years I’ve come to recognize that seasonal affective disorder actually explains a lot of my own mood and energy changes come winter—and that of many of my friends and loved ones too. To learn more about SAD, how it works and why it has an affect on some of the population, I asked Dr. Valerie Taylor, head of psychiatry at the University of Calgary for some clarification.
What Is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder (a.k.a. SAD) can also be considered the winter blues. “It is essentially feelings of sadness and depression that occur in the fall or winter months,” says Dr. Taylor. Clinically, someone who suffers from SAD would meet criteria for Major Depressive Disorder, but the symptoms only really appear in the fall/winter. SAD can also impact people in the summer months, but it is much less common.
My own theory had to do with Vitamin D and sunlight, and although there’s no straightforward cause of SAD, I might be on to something. “It may be related to changes in the body’s circadian rhythms cause by decreased sunlight and serotonin deficiencies, which is a neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation,” says Dr. Taylor. Basically, not getting enough sunlight, your sleep patterns being thrown off and not getting enough serotonin can all contribute to mood changes.
Why Do I Get It?
Although anyone can be impacted by SAD, Dr. Taylor says that like Major Depressive Disorder, it tends to impact women more than men. There are also links to family history, those who are younger and people who live in northern climates.
What Symptoms Should I Look Out For?
To be diagnosed with SAD, you’ll also be diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), so many of the symptoms are the same. Feelings of depression, losing interest in activities, low energy, problems sleeping or concentrating, feeling hopeless—these are all signs that you might have MDD or SAD. SAD is also linked to over eating and over sleeping.
How Can You Treat SAD?
In many cases, SAD is treated the same way as MDD, which means counselling and potentially medication to help manage symptoms. For more at-home remedies, you can try supplements (melatonin is a good one), keep up your exercise routine and do your best to stay social. Dr. Taylor also suggests light therapy as an option. Light therapy relies on a “happy lamp” to deliver a full spectrum of light (without the UV obviously) in your home.
(Story by Contributing Editor, Alexandra Donaldson)