Healthy Mind, Healthy Body

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Mar 05, 2015

by Myers Hurt, MD

During winter, days are shorter, temperatures drop, and vegetation browns. Similarly, our emotional well-being withers. Studies show that as many as 40 percent of patients seen in primary care settings experience some degree of depressive symptoms during the winter months.

Most of the time, these emotions are labeled the “Winter Blues” or something equally as benign. Occasionally, however, these feelings can grow into a collection of symptoms consistent with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a more serious concern and is, in fact, classified by the American Psychiatric Association as a recurrent type of major depressive disorder.

Typical symptoms of SAD include increased sleep, increased appetite, weight gain, and irritability that occur annually in late fall to early winter—with complete resolution of symptoms in the spring and summer months.

While the exact mechanism is unknown, most research points to a lack of exposure to daylight as a cause. As such, treatment revolves around light therapy—making time to get outside improves mood and decreases doctor visits. Commercially available lamps that produce 10,000 lux (a measurement of light) have also been shown to reverse symptoms of SAD. Large studies have shown drastic improvement in mood when these lamps are integrated into a daily routine for only 30 minutes.

For severe symptoms, practitioners can consider using antidepressant medication (Prozac, Wellbutrin), or even cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help patients restructure thinking patterns and challenge negative thoughts.

Talk with your primary care doctor if you think that you are struggling with SAD. They can help you experience the beauty that is winter—it should be something that we look forward to, not a season we dread.