Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a mood disorder that is most likely to happen during winter months. Causes can include less sunlight, low serotonin levels, and changes in melatonin levels.
Symptoms of SAD can include mood changes, trouble sleeping, changes in appetite, and loss of interest in activities.
Some ways to try to prevent or reduce SAD are to maintain healthy vitamin D levels, light therapy, psychotherapy, medications, and lifestyle changes.
Talk to a doctor or mental health professional if you think you may have SAD or other mental health concerns.
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Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that is linked to seasonal changes. The National Institutes of Mental Health say it’s also known as the “winter blues,” and it comes on as winter approaches. There’s a lot you can do about SAD so it is less likely to interfere with daily life. Here is some information about causes and symptoms of SAD, and what you can do to prevent or reduce it.
Symptoms of SAD
You may have SAD if you notice one or more of these symptoms.
Changes in appetite
Loss of interest in regular activities
Changes in mood, including irritability
Be sure to check with a doctor if you have these or other concerning symptoms.
Causes of SAD
Mayo Clinic mentions a few likely causes of SAD that may be linked to the onset of winter.
Low exposure to sunlight as daylight hours and sunlight intensity decrease
Low levels of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter linked to mood
High levels of melatonin, leading to increased sleepiness and disruptions in sleep
You’re more likely to experience SAD if you live in a northern climate, have low vitamin D levels, or have a personal or family history of depression.
Ways to Beat SAD
If you have symptoms of SAD or you have concerns about your mental or physical health, the first thing to do is to get in contact with your healthcare provider to get appropriate advice and care. Here are some standard ways to address SAD.
Your healthcare provider may suggest light therapy. This involves exposure to a special lamp. The lamp is intended to mimic exposure to sunlight, which is scarcer during winter than summer.
Your provider can give you instructions on how to use the lamp. You might turn it on when you wake up in the morning so that you can experience some light right away. Your provider may tell you how long to use it for and how to position it so you get the proper exposure. You might use your lamp for a few hours a day during the winter.
There are inexpensive light therapy lamps available at many retailers, or your provider may prescribe a certain type for you. Be assured that even though the light is bright, a proper lamp is specially designed not to expose you to harmful UV radiation.
Low vitamin D may be related to SAD. Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin” because UV radiation from the sun can trigger your body to make it.
Vitamin D is in a limited number of foods, too. Fortified milk and some fortified dairy substitutes, orange juice, and breakfast cereals have it. Natural sources of vitamin D include fatty fish and egg yolks.
During winter, many people do not get enough sunlight to make sufficient vitamin D, and deficiency is common. In the US population, about 2 in 5 adults have low levels.
You’re more likely to have low vitamin D if any of the following apply to you.
You live in a northern climate
You always use sunscreen or cover most of your skin when you’re outdoors
You have darker skin
You’re an adult over 65 years old
Your healthcare provider can order a blood test to check vitamin D levels. If you’re low, your provider may suggest taking supplements.
In some cases, your healthcare provider may decide that medications are a good choice as a standalone treatment or in addition to other treatments for SAD. In particular, these may include antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or bupropion. Be sure to take medications exactly as prescribed.
Getting help from a mental health professional is another strategy for reducing the effects of SAD. The National Institute of Mental Health says that your provider may use cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, techniques. This approach aims to give you tools that will allow you to handle challenging situations more effectively. You may also learn to use positive thinking when you notice negative thoughts.
While the above strategies may be prescribed specifically for SAD, a generally healthy lifestyle can support physical and mental health as well. Healthy eating, maintaining a healthy weight, and staying physically active can all boost mood and energy.
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