Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which as its name implies, is a disorder related to the change in seasons. The earlier sunsets cause less daylight exposure which can impact mood and, subsequently, cause depression for many people. Further, SAD occurs like clockwork as the seasons change with certain people exhibiting the first warning signs in the fall which, consequently, worsen in the winter. During this time people with the disorder feel depressed, lethargic and irritable to the point that it interferes with their daily functioning.
Many studies demonstrate a positive correlation between returning to standard time where the sun sets earlier and the incidence of depression and SAD, so as we prepare to “fall back” and set our clocks back one hour, don't brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the "winter blues" or a seasonal funk that you have to tough out on your own. Talk to a medical professional if you feel you are suffering from SAD and need help.
Common symptoms of SAD include sadness, fatigue, hunger, irritability and trouble sleeping. While these symptoms mirror those of depression in general, it is important to note that SAD is characterized by recurrent episodes of depression, usually in late fall and winter, alternating with periods of normal or high mood the rest of the year.
Many people with SAD find that their symptoms respond to a specific treatment called light therapy. Light therapy consists of daily exposure to a light box, which artificially simulates high-intensity sunlight. Side effects of light therapy are uncommon and usually reversible when the intensity of light therapy is decreased. The most commonly experienced side effects include irritability, eyestrain, headaches, nausea and fatigue.
Scientific studies have shown light therapy to be effective when compared to placebo and as effective as antidepressants in many cases of non-severe SAD. Light therapy may also work faster than antidepressants for some people, with notable effects beginning with in a few days of starting treatment. Other people may find that it takes a few weeks. It is important to note light therapy does not work for every patient. Antidepressant medications have also been found to be useful in treating people with SAD. Again, it’s important to speak with a medical professional to determine the best course of treatment.
Amin Gilani, MD is a board certified psychiatrist who practices in Birmingham.
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