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Seasonal Affective Disorder: Symptoms And Treatments

Jan 15, 2022
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It’s normal to feel a little down during winter months, especially once the holidays have passed. You may find yourself stuck inside more often than you’d like, missing sunlight on shorter days. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is more than feeling the winter blues.

It’s normal to feel a little down during winter months, especially once the holidays have passed. You may find yourself stuck inside more often than you’d like, missing sunlight on shorter days. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is more than feeling the winter blues. SAD affects your everyday life throughout the winter. If you've noticed significant mood changes that affect how you feel, think, and behave this season, you may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder? 

Many people experience weeks where they feel sad or unlike their usual selves. When your depression starts when the seasons change and end when spring comes around with longer daylight hours, this can indicate SAD.

Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression characterized by its recurrent seasonal pattern, with symptoms lasting roughly 4 to 5 months per year. In the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), SAD is referred to as Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the most challenging months for people with SAD in the United States are January and February. 

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Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatments

While symptoms typically fade on their own when winter ends, seasonal affective disorder symptoms improve faster with treatment.

Light Therapy

Phototherapy, also known as light therapy, is a popular treatment for SAD. 

Light therapy has been a preferred treatment for SAD since the 1980s, improving symptoms in 50 to 80 percent of people affected by the condition. This treatment exposes people to a bright light every day to make up for the shortened periods of sunshine in the winter.

Light therapy involves sitting in front of a special light therapy box that emits bright light while filtering out harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Phototherapy typically requires sitting in front of this light for a minimum of 20 minutes per day. This is typically done when you first wake up in the morning throughout the winter months. 

While people see some improvements from light therapy within one or two weeks of starting treatment, treatment is usually continued through the season to prevent relapse.

Individuals with certain eye conditions or individuals who take medications that increase sensitivity to sunlight may need to consider alternative treatments or use light therapy under medical supervision. Always consult with a doctor before treating any new medical condition.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture has a long history of use as a non-pharmacologic intervention to treat symptoms of depression in Eastern medicine. Over the past few decades, acupuncture has shown similar benefits for psychiatric disorders in Western countries as well.

Recent research suggests that acupuncture is just as effective as fluoxetine, a popular antidepressant, in reducing symptoms of depression.

In this study, patients underwent either electroacupuncture five times weekly or took a daily dose of fluoxetine. After six weeks, both groups experienced similar improvements in symptoms. However, the acupuncture group experienced this benefit sooner, with dramatic symptoms reduction noticeable at the two week mark.

Improve Your Diet 

While you might be craving starchy or sweet foods, your body will thank you for choosing nutritious choices. A healthy diet with adequate nutritional value can give your body the fuel you need to power through these dark months. 

Many people with SAD also suffer from a vitamin D deficiency. In this instance, taking vitamin D supplements can improve your symptoms. However, studies exploring vitamin D as a treatment for SAD have produced mixed findings. Some results indicate it is as effective as light therapy, but others detect no effect in individuals without a vitamin D deficiency.

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Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for SAD (CBT-SAD) is another effective treatment for the disorder. CBT-SAD uses behavioral activation to help individuals identify and schedule engaging indoor and outdoor activities to combat the loss of interest many with SAD experience in the winter.

Research comparing CBT to light therapy suggests that these treatments are equally effective in improving SAD symptoms. While some symptoms improve faster with light therapy, a long-term study following SAD patients across two winters suggests that the positive effects of CBT-SAD last longer.

Antidepressant Medications

If symptoms are severe and other treatments do not provide enough benefit, your doctor may consider using antidepressants to treat your SAD. 

Research suggests that extended-release bupropion (Wellbutrin XL) is effective in preventing recurrent SAD symptoms in adults with a history of the disorder. However, side effects including headaches, nausea, and insomnia may also occur. You might need to try a few different antidepressants before finding the one that works best for you and has the fewest side effects.

It may take some time to see the full benefits from an antidepressant. However, since taking medication often comes along with numerous side effects, if it important to monitor closely and decide whether to continue it or not after weighing the risks and benefits. Always discuss with your doctor if any concerns arise.

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Finding Support For Seasonal Affective Disorder

If you are experiencing symptoms of SAD, seek the help of a trained medical professional. As with other types of depression, it's vital to ensure no other medical condition is causing your symptoms.

SAD can be misdiagnosed in the presence of conditions with similar symptoms, including: 

  • Hypothyroidism

  • Mononucleosis

  • Hypoglycemia

  • Bipolar disorder

A professional can perform a comprehensive exam and diagnosis, which will help you find the best treatment for your symptoms. With proper treatment, SAD can be a manageable condition.

Ready to get started? Schedule your appointment here.

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