Seasonal Affective Disorder, with its appropriate acronym SAD is a condition that afflicts 10 to 20 percent of the U.S. population. Starting in late fall, peaking in winter and lasting through spring, it leaves its victims with only the short summer months when they feel normal.
While sufferers with mild forms of Seasonal Affective Disorder can function normally, others experience severe forms of depression. Kelly Rohan, Professor and Director of Clinical Training at University of Vermont, estimates at least two percent of the population suffer from debilitating forms of the psychiatric condition.
That percentage increases the further north people dwell. Various research studies estimate that in Alaska, up to 10 percent of the population experience SAD; 9.7 percent in New Hampshire and only 1.4 percent in Florida. Symptoms are similar to depression and include fatigue, hibernation, loss of appetite or overeating, lack of desire to pursue hobbies and activities, and decreased concentration.
Reduced sunlight is thought to be a major factor in its onset. Changing daylight patterns affect the natural circadian rhythms. When days get shorter and nights longer and colder, the incidence of SAD goes up.
The European College of Neuropsychopharmacology published research in October that revealed that like most forms of clinical depression, biochemical imbalance is at play with Seasonal Affective Disorder victims. During winter, sufferers reveal a significant lessening of serotonin, the brain chemical that regulates mood and the feeling of well being.
Researchers at the University of Copenhagen analyzed and compared blood samples of patients with Seasonal Affective Disorder with those who do not have the SAD affliction. They discovered sufferers demonstrated increased levels of a “transporter protein,” which causes a dip in serotonin and consequently in mood.
Sunlight is a natural booster of this brain chemical, which is the base of many antidepressant drugs that work by chemically heightening levels of serotonin. While the majority of people maintain adequate levels throughout the year, SAD sufferers do not.
Just as in other forms of depression, genetics are a significant factor. The propensity for Seasonal Affective Disorder increases in cases with a family history of mood disorders.
They found a link between a deficiency in vitamin D, caused by lack of sunlight, and Seasonal Affective Disorder. They conclude that levels of vitamin D may play a regulative role in the development of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Ani Kalayjian, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University states that chronic sufferers can take preventative, non-medical steps to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder. Just as preparations are made to winterize one’s homes, cars, gardens and routines, expert-backed strategies that can help to ride out the season should be completed.
The simplest is exposure to natural sunlight. Opening up the drapes first thing in the morning, letting light in, and spending some time out in the open. Half an hour a day outdoors may offset the seasonal drops in serotonin. Light therapy through use of light boxes has proven effective at combating seasonal depression.
Breathing in fresh air each day, going for a nature walk, especially in the company of friends, laughing and talking are all effective ways to beat back depression. The outdoors relieve stress and lift the spirits.
Maintaining routine is beneficial in establishing normalcy. The weekly book club, brunch gathering, or gym class grounds a person and helps them to feel that everything is normal.
Exercise is comparable to therapy or anti-depressants as an effective treatment for depression. Working out naturally releases endorphins, which bring about a feeling of happiness, even euphoria. Aerobic exercise boosts and keeps serotonin levels elevated for hours after a workout, according to a paper from Princeton University.
Sugary foods are detrimental to physical health. Countries with high sugar consumption have higher rates of depression. New thought believes that sugars have negative effects on mental health too, in that it diminishes the body’s ability to handle stress and may escalate anxiety. Nutritious, complete meals with well-balanced sources of protein and fiber are key to eating right and feeling good mentally and physically.
Relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, meditation and yoga are popular means to alleviate depression and anxiety. These pursuits actually change neural networks and decrease stress. Dr. Kalayjian recommends progressive relaxation, a technique that involves tensing and relaxing muscle groups in turn throughout the body.
Vacationing in a warm location is another option. The benefits on mood are felt even just anticipating the trip. However, it is vital to tolerate one’s normal environment for the long-term.
Massage therapy increases levels of serotonin, according to a review by the University of Miami School of Medicine. This is corroborated by an independent study from Taiwan, which found massage significantly diminished SAD symptoms and increased serotonin levels.
Medical intervention might be required if Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) symptoms exist for two consecutive years with no other periods of affliction. If symptoms get severe or remain long-term, treatment by a qualified healthcare provider is needed.
By Bina Joseph
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