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Seasonal Depression: What It Is and How to Treat It

February 18, 2019

Many of us look forward to winter – the gatherings with friends and family, marveling at the fresh snow and then playing in it, watching cheesy holiday movies. But for some people, the long hours of darkness can cause feelings of sadness and depression. This condition is called seasonal affective disorder or seasonal affective depression (SAD).

SAD can disrupt your sleep, affect your appetite and sap your energy. Fortunately, treatment options are available.

What Causes SAD?

The exact cause of seasonal depression isn’t known, but it tends to start and stop the same time every year. Unlike chronic depression, which affects people year-round, SAD generally begins as fall changes to winter and ends as winter turns into spring. So, exposure to natural daylight is thought to play an important role.

Researchers think the seasonal shift in daylight affects the hormones serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin is sometimes called the “happy hormone” because it contributes to our feelings of well-being. Melatonin, on the other hand, helps regulate our sleep. In fact, many people take melatonin supplements to aid sleep.

As the days become shorter, our bodies make less serotonin and more melatonin. This hormonal shift may trigger the symptoms of SAD.

SAD symptoms include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day
  • Losing interest in favorite activities
  • Sleep problems — either sleeping too much or having sleep difficulties
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts of suicide

SAD can seriously impact your health and well-being, so you should visit your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. Many plans cover a range of mental health services, so check your benefits to see what’s covered

Common Treatment Options

Treatment for seasonal affective disorder includes both medical and nonmedical options. Talk to your doctor about what course of treatment you should follow. They may include:

  • Prescription antidepressants help some patients with SAD. According to a study published in Biological Psychiatry, starting antidepressants in early fall, before symptoms begin, can prevent SAD from appearing at all.
  • Light therapy, also called phototherapy, is another treatment option. It involves sitting in front of a lamp or light box that’s more than 20 times brighter than most indoor lighting. Researchers believe that spending 30 minutes or more in front of this light increases our serotonin production and improves our mood.
How Lifestyle Can Help

In addition to light therapy, other nonmedical treatments also might help lessen the symptoms of SAD. These include some lifestyle changes that can help our biological clocks maintain consistent sleep/wake cycles throughout the year.

  • Boost sunlight exposure — spending time outside when the sun is shining — even sitting by a sunny window — could help boost your serotonin production.
  • Exercise — getting your body moving also increases serotonin levels. A good target is 30 minutes a day, five times a week.
  • Eat healthy — maintaining a balanced diet can help reduce cravings (that sometimes come with depression) for starches and sweets.
  • Stay social — being involved with other people on a regular basis is important to our mental health.