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Seasonal depression or Seasonal affective disorder, is a type of depression that begins and ends around the same time every year, typically linked to changes in seasons. For most people, this seasonal mood change begins as the summer ends and daylight begins to fade, and then improves in the spring. However, some people experience this seasonal emotional cycle with low points in the spring and summer. Seasonal affective disorder, often abbreviated to SAD, is more commonly diagnosed in women than men, although both genders are affected by the condition.
Seasonal depression, or seasonal affective disorder, is caused by changes in brain chemistry or hormonal cycles, which scientists believe to be influenced by the amount of daylight during the year. Symptoms of SAD appear similar to those of depression, although at a regular point in the year, mood lifts and the individual feels better. Physicians typically diagnose SAD if the individual experiences patterns of depression and mood lifting at similar times of year for at least two years in a row.
SAD is considered a subtype of major depression or bipolar disorder. In order to diagnose SAD appropriately and separate this mood disorder from other potential mood disorders, the DSM-5 requires the following criteria:
Symptoms of SAD must recur on a regular pattern for at least two years in order to be diagnosed as a mood disorder. The symptoms are similar to dysthymia or depression and include:
Researchers argue about exactly what causes SAD, but most agree that the amount of daylight a person gets during specific months in the year can affect how their brain produces neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin, or how their body produces hormones. When the brain produces less serotonin, neural pathways do not communicate as they should or as they do during normal levels of processing, which can lead to depression, weight gain, fatigue, and other symptoms.
These changes in neurotransmitter levels can be exacerbated by light-related changes to circadian rhythm or a person’s natural cycle of sleeping and waking. People prone to “summer depression” may get less sleep, for example, when the sun rises much earlier and sets later.
Another theory about SAD involves melatonin production, which helps control sleep and wake cycles. The amount of light a person receives during the day affects when their pineal gland begins to produce melatonin. If the person gets only a few hours of daylight during the winter months, for example, their pineal gland may begin producing melatonin much earlier in the day, making them feel fatigued. This can also disrupt normal sleep cycles and cause the person to lose sleep, adding to fatigue.
People can experience SAD in both the winter and summer, or they could develop the condition if they move to an area where there is a different amount of natural light over the course of the year. Some people are generally more prone to developing this condition than others, such as:
There are three ways a physician will diagnose SAD:
Once the physician or therapist has determined that the individual has SAD, their depression is not due to another cause, and it is specifically triggered by seasonal changes, they will work with the client to develop an appropriate treatment plan.
In some instances, a physician will also examine a person’s seasonal eating habits. Cravings for calorie-dense foods, especially carbohydrates, which provide quick bursts of energy, is considered by some doctors to be one of the symptoms of SAD. Cravings for calorie-dense foods, lack of energy to exercise, and overeating in an attempt to restore energy lead to rapid weight gain; the person will then typically shed the weight, or much of the weight, during the non-depressed seasons. However, cravings and weight gain can also relate to other underlying conditions, so blood tests and a physical exam are important tools for ruling these problems out.
Once a person has been diagnosed with SAD, their physician or therapist will begin different treatments and work to improve these over time, depending on the severity of the disorder. Some of these treatments include:
Seasonal affective disorder is commonly discussed in the media, and because of that, many people may self-diagnose as suffering from SAD without understanding how serious this condition can be. Although there are milder versions of SAD, only about 1-2 percent of the population has actually received a diagnosis of SAD. There are probably many people who have not received a diagnosis or who struggle with another mood disorder but believe it to be SAD. It is important to get help immediately for persistent mood problems like recurring anxiety or persistent low mood, especially when these issues begin to interfere with life, work, and relationships.
Any mood disorder that goes untreated can get worse. People who struggle with mood disorders such as depression, including SAD, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, are more prone to developing substance abuse and addiction problems. This is because people who struggle with persistent or recurrent mood changes might attempt to self-medicate, especially with alcohol. However, these individuals can sometimes become addicted to mood-changing prescription medications, particularly benzodiazepines, that are not intended for long-term use.
People who struggle with both a substance abuse problem and a mental health issue, such as SAD, have co-occurring disorders. These conditions feed into each other, and each disorder can make symptoms of the other disorder worse. Getting professional help is the best way to overcome these issues. Since the link between addiction and mental health is becoming more understood, doctors and rehabilitation programs are much more prepared to help people struggling with these two conditions simultaneously.