5 Things You Need to Know About SAD

Seasonal affective disorder affects people every year during winter

By Ernst Lamothe Jr.

Physician Steven Dubovsky, chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University at Buffalo and an attending physician at ECMC.
Physician Steven Dubovsky, chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University at Buffalo and an attending physician at ECMC.

Seasonal change can be a nice change of scenery but the long-term effects are not always pleasing to everyone.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which typically occurs during the winter, is a mood disorder characterized by depression. Mostly caused when there is less sunlight and the weather is colder, it can have a crippling and overwhelming sensation in the lives of affected people.

“This definitely affects a distinct group of people, but the good thing is that it can be treated,” said physician Steven Dubovsky, chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University at Buffalo. He is also an attending psychiatrist at ECMC’s Behavioral Health Center.

Dubovsky talks about five important facts to seasonal affective disorder.

1.  Seasonal Change

Effects of SAD is directly related to the weather, specifically wintertime when we experiment frigid temperatures and cloudy, shorter days. The condition affects people living in northern states. For example, 1% of those who live in Florida and 9% of those who live in New England or Alaska suffer from SAD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

In some people with bipolar disorder, spring and summer can bring on symptoms of mania or a less intense form of mania, while fall and winter can be a time of depression.

“This can be especially tough for people who already suffer from lack of general energy or people who suffer from depression,” said Dubovsky.

2. People who are affected

About half a million people in the United States suffer from winter SAD, while 10% to 20% may suffer from a milder form of winter blues, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Three-quarters of the sufferers are women, and the condition usually starts in early adulthood. SAD also can occur in children and adolescents. Older adults are less likely to experience SAD

Medical experts and psychologists say less exposure to sunlight alters the internal biological clock that regulates mood, sleep and hormones. Exposure to light may reset the biological clock. Some of the symptoms include having low energy, hypersomnia, overeating, weight gain, craving carbohydrates and social withdrawal.

Another theory is that brain chemicals such as serotonin, which transmit information between nerves, may be changed in people with SAD. It is believed that exposure to light can correct these imbalances.

“People tend to feel like they want to sleep more, and they are not as motivated during the winter when they suffer from SAD,” he added. “This is really difficult because this is not just something in their imagination. Research has shown that the amount of light you get to your brain through your eyes can affect you.”

3.  It is not the holiday blues

Another theory is SAD occurs because of sadness around the holidays. That has been found to be untrue.

“The peak season for the depression in the northern hemisphere has more to do with the days being shorter but on the other side the southern hemisphere the peak incidents in places like Australia are in the middle of the summer. It has nothing to do with Christmas or the holidays,” added Dubovsky.

4.  Coping strategies

People who seek help for SAD typically receive counseling as they normally would with a depressive disorder.

Not only can counseling help, but the patient has to be willing to want the change.

In addition, light therapy is a way to treat seasonal affective disorder and certain other conditions by exposure to artificial light. During light therapy, a person sits or works near a device called a light therapy box. The box gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. Light therapy is thought to affect brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep, easing SAD symptoms. Using a light therapy box may also help with other types of depression, sleep disorders and other conditions.

“Light therapy can start working within three days. Those bright lights do help offset depression,” said Dubovsky. “You can get a machine that cost around $200 which is worth your mental health. But you need to make sure the light is bright and has some intensity because a regular lamp or simply a brightly lit room won’t work.”

5.  Seasonal affective disorder is not new

When people hear of SAD, many believe that it is something new that hasn’t affected many people. That is far from the case.

“It is common for people to experience these mood changes from one direction to another,” said Dubovsky. “Oftentimes people might have been embarrassed to talk about it because people just call it the blues and they think you can just get over it with a good nap. But this is a disorder that affects millions of people and should be taken seriously.”