Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Different From Depression?

Fall season brings some wonderful treats–apples, cider donuts, colorful foliage, football as well as shorter days, longer nights, and the advent of winter. During this time some might crave more carbs, feel fatigue, and sleep more than usual. These symptoms can also mean seasonal affective disorder or SAD.

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SAD is both similar to and different from other forms of depression. Many patients experience marked seasonal changes in the winter months. Although SAD symptoms are similar to depression, people experiencing these symptoms respond better and quicker to treatment then the ones suffering from Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).

What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

People who suffer from SAD have many of the common signs of depression, including:

  • Sadness

  • Anxiety

  • Irritability

  • Loss of interest in usual activities

  • Withdrawal from social activities

  • Inability to concentrate

  • Extreme fatigue and lack of energy

  • A “leaden” sensation in the limbs

  • Increased need for sleep

  • Craving for carbohydrates, and weight gain.

Symptoms of summer SAD include:

  • Weight loss

  • Agitation and restlessness

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Decreased appetite

What causes seasonal affective disorder?

The exact cause of this condition is not known, but evidence strongly suggests that, for those who are vulnerable to it, SAD is set off by changes in the availability of sunlight. One theory is that with less exposure to sunlight, the internal biological clock that regulates mood, sleep, and hormones is shifted. Exposure to light may reset the biological clock.

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

Melatonin, a chemical known to affect sleep patterns, may also play a role in seasonal affective disorder. Some have suggested that the lack of sunlight stimulates the production of melatonin in some individuals. This may be a factor in the symptoms of sluggishness and sleepiness. The lack of daylight can suppress Melatonin, a hormone made in the pineal gland that regulates sleep-wake cycles, therefore people may experience more of the symptoms above.

How to treat SAD?

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Exposing oneself to extremely bright light of 10,000 lux for 20 to 30 minutes a day has proven effective in relieving the symptoms of SAD. You want to get a safe, reliable device that has been clinically tested and validated. Though the light is intense, you don’t look directly at it. It is great to read by it while it is on. Research indicates people with SAD respond in days to light therapy, where non-SAD patients need psychotherapy treatment for months and at times in conjunction with antidepressants before they see results.

Additional ways to help decrease SAD are: checking for vitamin D deficiency, eating fewer carbs, managing stress, getting enough exercise, and even considering an SSRI by a psychiatrist and then tapered off as spring approaches. SAD patients can respond well to talk therapy, it helps with understanding of the condition and learning healthy coping skills to manage the symptoms.