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How to Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder

By: Sravika Bolla

SAD, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, is a type of major depression disorder classified by the American Psychiatric Association that happens during specific seasons. Winter SAD, also known as Winter Blues, happens during the Fall and Winter seasons and is mostly seen during the month of January. Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder occurs during the Spring and Summer and is rarer compared to the Winter Blues. Likewise, according to the Johns Hopkins Medicinal Hospital, young adult females are the most at risk for SAD. The typical age range for SAD is 18-30 year olds. 

There is not a specific cause that has been identified for SAD. However, scientists have been prone to believe that it is caused by numerous things.

Causes Include:

  • The Change to one’s Circadian rhythm

  • Excess Melatonin produced due to the shorter days

  • A Vitamin D deficiency

  • Brain Chemical Imbalances

Circadiam Rythym is our biological body clock. It is what sends signals to our body to produce melatonin and serotonin at certain times of the day. Each circadian rhythm is extremely different. Some circadian rhythms make waking up early easier, while some like for a person to sleep more. With shorter days and fewer daylight hours, our biological clocks get messed up. After being fine-tuned to a certain schedule, and finally getting used to the bedtime, our circadian rhythm suddenly changes. This causes excess melatonin to be produced and makes us more tired during the day. 

Additionally, with less sunlight, our Vitamin D deficiency can get incredibly low. This deficiency is proven to be linked to anxiety and depression. It is also a hormone that regulates our calcium, which can cause weaker bones and hurt muscles. The National Institute of Health states that, “Some psychiatric distress such as anger, anxiety, poor quality sleep, depression, and worry are associated with hypovitaminosis D in adolescents.” Hence, Vitamin D deficiency is linked to many mood disorders and is a very common risk factor and cause.

In our brain, neurotransmitters send signals to our nerves to produce specific chemicals. One of these chemicals is serotonin. Serotonin helps our mood and contributes to feeling happy. In sunlight, our bodies produce serotonin. People with SAD may already have low serotonin. However, the lack of sunlight and Vitamin D tend to make it worse. Lack of serotonin can create feelings of depression and sadness. 

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder tend to be wary. 

Symptoms of Winter SAD include:

  • Feeling sad constantly

  • Increase in Anxiety

  • Unusual Weight Gain

  • Lack of energy

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Feeling irritability

  • Oversleeping

Summer SAD symptoms are:

  • Agitation

  • Constant irritability

  • Violent bursts

  • Decreased appetite

  • Weight Loss

  • Insomnia

Risk factors of SAD consist of having been diagnosed with another mood disorder such as major depression, or bipolar disorder, being around another person with SAD (typically a family member, or close friend), and living in cloudy regions. Other risk factors include living in environments, that are far from the equator. 

There are many ways to prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder. Since SAD is more predictable once diagnosed, it is easier to prevent during those winter or summer months. Prevention includes exercising for at least 30 minutes a day to regulate your serotonin, seeing friends, eating nutritious foods for a balanced diet, and talking to an authority figure about your feelings.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is one of the few mood disorders with effective treatment. Treatment can include Bright Light Therapy, Antidepressants, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Bright Light Therapy is being under a specific lamp with white light, for long periods of time. This light is twenty times more bright than regular indoor light and helps produce serotonin. To use this light, one should not look directly at it but be under it. Typically, the lamp is placed two to three feet away and should be constantly on, as one does normal things such as working, reading, and eating. Another treatment is Antidepressants. Antidepressants are a known treatment for many mood disorders. The Cleveland Clinic suggests using Fluoxetine (Prozac®), Escitalopram (Lexapro®), Paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva®), Sertraline (Zoloft®), and Citalopram (Celexa®). These medications should be prescribed, but some are found over-the-counter. The last treatment that has been found effective is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This psychological therapy changes thinking patterns, to help with many mood disorders, not just SAD.

If you or anyone you know, are experiencing regular symptoms, it is best to talk to a medical professional right away. This mood disorder is not very harmful but can be a risk factor for bipolar, major depression, and anxiety. These mood disorders are detrimental and need to be treated immediately. Hence, it is recommended to call your pediatrician, or doctor, and explain to them your feelings so they can properly diagnose and treat you!

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