What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) by Sue Lasini

By at March 13, 2013 | 2:32 pm | Print

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) by Sue Lasini

SAD, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that affects an individual at the same time every year.  It usually begins in the fall and can continue through the winter months and it is more than just the winter blues.  It can also affect some people in the spring and summer, but a larger percentage of the population that has Seasonal Affective Disorder is usually winter SAD. 

SAD can affect anyone, but is more common and likely to affect people who live in areas where days are shorter in the winter, when the amount of sunlight during the day is less, or in areas where daylight is minimal in any of the seasons.  It also affects women more than men.   The age range of people with SAD is usually between 15 and 55, and the chance of getting it as you continue to get older is reduced.  Additionally, if a person has a close relative with SAD, the risk of getting it is greater.

So how or why would the reduced amount of sunlight and/or shorter days cause someone to get SAD?  Little or no sunlight in the day can disrupt a person’s circadian rhythm (the internal clock) and their sleep-wake cycles.  Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin levels.  Serotonin is a brain chemical, or neurotransmitter, that affects mood.  A drop in serotonin can cause depression.  Also, with the change of seasons, melatonin, a natural hormone, can be disturbed.  This is important as melatonin contributes in part to moods and sleep patterns.

SAD can include some or all of the following symptoms: depression, hopelessness, anxiety, depletion of energy, withdrawal from society, oversleeping, a feeling of physically heavy weight or load in the arms and legs, loss of interest in hobbies or activities, change in appetite, cravings of high carbohydrate foods, weight gain and problems with concentration.  Spring and summer SAD affects fewer individuals than winter SAD, and includes the following symptoms: anxiety, insomnia, irritability, agitations, weight loss, poor or loss of appetite and increased sex drive.     

Experts are not quite sure of the causes of SAD, but they believe that age, genetics, and probably a person’s natural chemical make-up, chemical balance, or rather a “chemical imbalance”, is probably the biggest contributing factor.  One, almost sure way to tell if you have it is if you recognize that you have been depressed at the same time every year for two years in a row, if you are very hungry, are gaining weight and/or sleeping excessively.  Another indicator is if you have a close relative, parents or siblings that have had it.

Once diagnosed with SAD, the doctor usually prescribes light therapy for treatment.  There are two light therapies that are used.  One is a bright light treatment in which you use a light box that you sit in front of in the mornings for a half hour.  The second is called dawn simulation light.  This is exactly as it sounds; a light in the morning that goes on simulating the sun rising in your room and continues to brighten.

Other treatments are used as well, but each case is different.  Anti-depressants may be prescribed if there is a chemical imbalance which affects a person’s mood and can balance it out.  Also, counseling is another treatment that would assist in treating someone with SAD.  Many people may only require light therapy treatments.  Others may require both light therapy and anti-depressants, or light therapy and counseling, or any combination of the three.  With the use of the light therapy alone, individuals could see improvement in one to two weeks.

If an individual has any of the symptoms of SAD, experiences the winter depression, or the spring/summer depression, consulting a physician would be a good first step to take in getting a confirmed diagnosis.  If left untreated a person could experience a depression that could lead to more serious issues or, even worse, suicide.  A physician can recommend the best light therapy, and if needed, anti-depressants and counseling, whichever is best for you.  Having a balance through the year is important to ones quality of life, so understanding that you have more than the winter blues, or summer blahs is important.  Awareness is key, so do not hesitate to contact the doctor if you believe you may have SAD and with simple treatment you can live a fully balanced and enjoyable quality life, all year through.


1)      Mayo Clinic:

2)     WebMD:  topic-overview



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