Here are the 4 main symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which include feeling sleepy, desire for carb-rich foods, mood swings, and feeling low.
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) are similar to those of normal depression, but they occur regularly at a specific time of year. They typically begin in the fall or winter and improve in the spring.
SAD varies in its nature and severity from person to person. Some people are simply irritated by the condition. Others may find it to be severe and have a significant effect on their daily lives.
The 4 important symptoms of SAD include:
- Feeling sleepy during the day and having difficulty getting out of bed in the morning
- A strong desire for carbohydrate-rich foods
- Mood swings
- Feeling low
Besides that, 16 other common symptoms of SAD include:
- Depression (misery, guilt, loss of self-esteem, hopelessness, despair, and apathy)
- Anxiety (tension and inability to tolerate stress)
- Mood changes (extremes of mood and, in some, periods of mania in spring and summer)
- Sleep problems (desire to oversleep and difficulty staying awake or, sometimes, disturbed sleep and early morning waking)
- Lethargy (a feeling of fatigue and inability to carry out normal routine)
- Overeating (craving for starchy and sweet foods that results in weight gain)
- Social problems (irritability and desire to avoid social contact)
- Sexual problems (loss of libido and decreased interest in physical contact)
- Unable to enjoy things that usually bring pleasure
- Feeling sluggish, heavy, or agitated
- Difficulty concentrating on daily tasks
- Having thoughts of death or suicide
- Problems with school or work
- Problems in relationships
- Feelings of boredom and loneliness
- Physical problems such as headache
Fall and winter SAD
Symptoms unique to the winter season or winter depression may include:
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Tiredness or low energy
Spring and summer SAD
Summer-onset SAD, or summer depression, can cause various symptoms:
Seasonal changes in bipolar disorder
- Spring and summer can trigger mania or a milder form of mania (hypomania) in some people with bipolar disorder, whereas fall and winter can be depressive.
If you experience any of these symptoms and are unable to find relief, you must see a doctor or therapist.
What are the possible causes of seasonal affective disorder?
Despite extensive research into mental health disorders, the precise cause of the seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is unknown. Certain factors, however, are thought to play a role in the development of the condition, such as:
- Changes in your internal clock (circadian rhythm):
- During the winter, days become shorter, and sunlight becomes weaker. This decrease in sunlight is thought to disrupt some people’s internal clocks, or body clocks, resulting in depression.
- Changes in serotonin levels in the brain:
- During the winter, neurotransmitter levels in the brain change. Serotonin levels hit a low, causing SAD.
- Not getting enough vitamin D:
- Vitamin D increases serotonin levels. Because sunlight helps us produce vitamin D, a lack of sunlight in the winter can result in vitamin D deficiency. This alteration can affect serotonin and mood.
- Melatonin levels:
- A change in season can upset the body’s melatonin balance, which influences sleep patterns.
Although no one knows for certain what causes SAD, several risk factors may increase your risk of the condition, such as:
- Genetics and family history:
- People who have SAD are more likely to have relatives who have it or another form of depression, indicating a possible genetic link to the condition.
- Having a pre-existing psychiatric condition:
- Geographic location:
- The further one lives from the equator, the more likely SAD appears to be. This could be due to less sunlight in the winter and longer days in the summer.
- People who work shifts because of time constraints of their job may go outside even less frequently, putting them at a higher risk of SAD.
- SAD is more prevalent in women than in men. According to most estimates, it affects women two to four times more than men. It is unknown why this is the case.
- Women with SAD appear to be more likely to have premenstrual mood changes, and those with more premenstrual mood changes appear to be more likely to have SAD.
To be diagnosed with seasonal depression, a person must have the following symptoms:
- At least two years of symptoms that worsen at certain times of the year
- Seasonal depressive episodes must outnumber nonseasonal episodes
What are the treatment options for seasonal affective disorder?
Symptoms usually improve as a new season begins, whether it’s winter transitioning to spring or summer transitioning to fall. However, if you are at risk of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or have previously experienced symptoms, it is critical to learn to identify and manage them so that you can prepare for the changing seasons.
- Being aware of your seasonal changes may help you become more aware of your mood swings.
- Getting regular exercise and adhering to the same wake-up and bedtime routines every day (even on the weekends) help you feel better.
- Providing your body with whole, nutritious foods will help you maintain your energy levels throughout the day.
- Make sure to get plenty of natural light such as eating lunch in a park rather than at your desk, opening your blinds, and sitting closer to windows that let in plenty of light.
In addition to developing a healthy lifestyle and sleep routine, the following are some of the most common SAD treatment options:
- Medication: This is typically used as the first line of treatment for SAD. Medications are extremely effective on their own or in combination with other treatment methods.
- Certain antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are commonly used as the first-line treatment of SAD. They are thought to help improve your brain’s serotonin levels, which can improve your mood.
- Light therapy: The main premise behind this type of treatment is that increasing your exposure to bright, artificial light during the fall and winter months can alleviate the symptoms of winter-related SAD.
- During the fall and winter months, treatment typically entails sitting in front of a lightbox that emits 10,000 lux of cool, white fluorescent light for 20 to 60 minutes each morning.
- Vitamin D:
- Your doctor can check your vitamin D levels with a blood test and may recommend supplementation to help because increasing your levels through diet alone is difficult. In general, vitamin D supplementation is regarded as a complementary therapy for SAD.
- Psychotherapy: Talk therapy or psychotherapy can help with a wide range of mental and emotional health issues, including SAD. There are numerous types of talk therapy.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT):
- Work on changing your behavior and thought patterns so you can learn to focus on and solve problems.
- It teaches you how to recognize negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones, and it can help you cope with the symptoms of SAD.
Light therapy and CBT were found to be comparatively effective for SAD during an acute depressive episode in studies, and both could be considered treatment options.
External stressors that disrupt our emotional equilibrium frequently precipitate SAD episodes. The consequences of COVID-19, as well as the pandemic’s anxiety, can be a major stressor for vulnerable people.
If you are aware that you have this condition, you should begin your annual treatment regimen before the season changes. The more proactive you are, the faster you may be able to recover.
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Medically Reviewed on 12/10/2021
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/seasonal-affective-disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): https://www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad.htm