Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression related to seasonal changes in daylight that affects about half a million Americans each year. The onset of symptoms tends to begin when the days grow shorter, with patients finding relief during the spring. In general, SAD affects those who live furthest from the equator, as they experience greater seasonal changes in daylight, according to a November 2015 article in Medical News Today. Thirty years after coining the term seasonal affective disorder, treatment methods have grown to include natural remedies that patients find safe and effective.
Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder
The exact causes of SAD remain unknown. Scientists, however, found a link between the disorder and the following factors:
- Circadian rhythms: Circadian rhythms take cues from the amount of sunlight that you receive. According to the Mayo Clinic, the shorter days that begin in the fall disrupt circadian rhythms in some individuals, leading to feeling of depression.
- Hypothalamus: Light affects the hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for the body’s circadian rhythms, moods, sleep and appetite. The hypothalamus receives signals from the eyes based on the amount and type of light the body is exposed to. These signals tell the brain to produce serotonin, melatonin and other hormones.
- Serotonin levels: When exposed to blue or white wavelengths, like the kind found in natural light, the brain produces serotonin, which is responsible for regulating moods and making you feel more awake and alert.
- Melatonin levels: When the eyes see darkness, it triggers the brain to convert serotonin into melatonin. Increased melatonin levels make an individual feel more tired and affect neurotransmitters.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Individuals with SAD have a form of major depressive disorder that emerges with seasonal changes. Symptoms of major depressive disorder that may also appear in patients with SAD include:
- Low energy levels
- Feelings of worthlessness or a loss of hope
- Little interest in activities once found enjoyable
- Feelings of depression nearly every day for most of the day
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feeling sluggish
- Changes in weight or appetite
- Craving sugary foods or those high in carbohydrates
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty getting along with others
Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment Using Light Therapy
One of the most effective types of SAD treatment is light therapy. Open up the curtains in your home to allow more natural light to fill the rooms. At home and work, sit next to windows as much as possible to maximize your exposure to light.
Increase your exposure to light by regularly exercising outside. WebMD states that exercising naturally releases endorphins, a chemical that acts as a sedative, reduces the perception of pain, reduce feelings of stress and helps you feel happier. If the weather doesn’t permit exercising outside or it’s dark during the times that you workout, exercise indoors in a brightly lit area, such as a gym. For individuals with SAD, one of the best times to workout, even on cloudy days, is in the morning.
Another effective form of light therapy is the use of light boxes, or therapy lights, that emit blue and white wavelengths, similar to the sun. The best lights are those that provide 10,000 lux of illumination. Sit near the light everyday for at least 30 minutes every day. For the best results, use the light box two or three times a day during the morning and afternoon. Unless you have shift work, avoid using the light in the evening to avoid disrupting your sleep schedule.
SAD is a serious illness and you may be able to naturally manage the symptoms with light therapy, exercise and a healthy diet. If the feelings of depression worsen or you have thoughts of hurting yourself, death or suicide, seek immediate medical attention. Also, talk to your doctor if you experience depression-related symptoms for more than two weeks to determine the best type of SAD treatment for you.
[Photo from Joe Penna via CC License 2.0]