If you notice that your mood, energy level and motivation take a nosedive each November only to return to normal in April, you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), according to Loyola University Health System doctors.
“This condition, characterized by depression, exhaustion and lack of interest in people and regular activities, interferes with a person’s outlook on life and ability to function properly,” said Dr. Angelos Halaris, chair of Loyola’s department of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences.
But people should not despair, because SAD is treatable.
“The most common type of this mood disorder occurs during the winter months,” said Halaris, professor of psychiatry, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, Maywood, Illinois. “SAD is thought to be related to a chemical imbalance in the brain, brought on by lack of light due to winter’s shorter days and typically overcast skies.”
Halaris said that bright light affects brain chemistry in a helpful way and acts as an antidepressant. “With less exposure to light in the winter months, many people become depressed,” he said. “Those susceptible to SAD are affected even more so.”
The American Psychiatric Association reports that as many as 10 to 20 percent of the United States population has a mild form of SAD. There may be a genetic vulnerability to developing SAD.
Halaris noted that a tendency to crave sweets is common with SAD. In addition, social relationships are hindered. Here’s how to reduce the risk of developing SAD in the first place.
“If at all possible, get outside during winter, even if it is overcast,” said Halaris. “Expose your eyes to natural light for one hour each day. At home, open the drapes and blinds to let in natural light.”
People living in northern states are more often affected by SAD than those living near the equator. Most cases are reported in January. More common in women than in men, SAD starts to show up in the teen years. However, it affects all age groups from teens to seniors. Symptoms can be similar to several other conditions, such as mononucleosis, hypoglycemia or hypothyroidism, so it is very important to get proper diagnosis and treatment from an experienced healthcare professional.
“SAD can be effectively treated with light therapy, antidepressant medication and/or psychotherapy,” said Halaris. “The latest treatment is a headband containing mounted lights that delivers light to your retina whether you are inside or outdoors.
Traditionally, treatment involved sitting in front of a light box for 15 – 45 minutes. In contrast, the headband works as the individual goes about activities of daily living.”
Halaris said that another version of SAD affects a person only in the summer months, but it is less common. “Its symptoms, insomnia, appetite loss and weight loss, are directly opposite of the winter version of SAD,” he said. “High humidity and elevated temperatures may play a role in summer SAD.”
A third type of SAD affects people throughout the entire year. This one is especially linked to people who work year-round in windowless offices.
Researchers believe that within five years, new products, including drugs, to treat seasonal affective disorder will be on the market.
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