Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Winter days can really drag you down. Natural sunlight is a free and available mood enhancer. It encourages us to produce vitamin D and protects us from seasonal mood changes. However, because society is more aware than ever of skin cancer and sun damage, most of us have significantly reduced our exposure to natural sunlight. But, in doing so, we have traded the risk factors of one disease for others. Lack of natural sunlight can lead to vitamin D deficiency – which contributes to an increased risk of and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Seasonal affective disorder (also called SAD) is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year. If you’re like most people with seasonal affective disorder, your symptoms start in the fall and may continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, seasonal affective disorder causes depression in the spring or early summer. Seasonal affective disorder has not been long recognized as an official diagnosis. The term first appeared in print in 1985. Seasonal affective disorder is also sometimes called winter depression, winter blues, or the hibernation reaction.

Although the exact causes of SAD are still unknown, studies have shown that the unique chemical makeup of each person, age and genetics all play roles in whether lack of natural sunlight triggers a seasonal affective response. Any decline in natural sunlight exposure and the resulting vitamin D absorption disrupts the natural body clock that controls the body’s gauge for sleeping and waking hours. This causes an uncontrolled deviation from normal patterns and behaviors, which in turn can causes feelings of depression and hopelessness. Reduced melatonin and serotonin hormones — the chemicals released from the brain that control mood — are often also partly to blame for SAD symptoms that lead to depression.

The incidence of seasonal affective disorder increases in people who are living farther away from the equator. Seasonal affective disorder is less common where there is snow on the ground. Seasonal affective disorder is about four times more common in women than men, and the average age of people when they first develop this illness is 23 years of age. People of all ages can develop seasonal affective disorder. Although there is no specific diagnostic test for the illness, it is understood that symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include tiredness, fatigue, depression, crying spells, irritability, trouble concentrating, body aches, loss of sex drive, poor sleep, decreased activity level, and overeating, especially of carbohydrates, with associated weight gain.

The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder typically tend to begin in the fall each year, lasting until spring. The symptoms are more intense during the darkest months. Therefore, the more common months of symptoms will vary depending on how far away from the equator one lives. Doctors often prescribe light therapy to treat SAD, Light therapy works well for most people with SAD, and it is easy to use. You may start to feel better within a week or so after you start light therapy. But you need to stick with it and use it every day until the season changes. Other treatments that may help include Antidepressants. These medicines can improve the balance of brain chemicals that affect mood. Some types of counseling, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, can help you learn more about SAD and how to manage your symptoms.

Celeste Botonakis

On the Nursing Assistant Guides blog, certified medical assistant Celeste Botonakis explores the daily life of a CMA. She'll keep you up-to-date with the latest on what’s happening in the field, and provides tips for those who are interested in becoming a medical or nursing assistant. Celeste has served in the medical field for over six years, and is passionate about helping people. She currently works at CSR Primary Care in Skokie, Illinois. Click here to learn more about Celeste Botonakis and