Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is an actual illness that sounds to many like something that’s been made up – a period of sadness and other symptoms brought on by a lack of sunlight. But as the condition has gained more attention and researchers have studied it more, they've found that it is more common than previously realized, affecting almost ten percent of Americans living in some Northeastern states. Since it was originally identified, SAD has been reclassified from a standalone diagnosis to a variant, or specifier, of depression, whose recurrence each year in those who suffer from it can be predicted, and which can be treated in a number of simple ways.
One way to understand what SAD is is to look at those who have been diagnosed with it, or its prevalence in specific geographic areas. It only appears in 1.4 percent of residents of the sunny state of Florida, but in New Hampshire where winters are long and sunlight is at a premium, it has been found in 9.7 percent of the population. SAD is a disorder that is a result of its sufferers not getting enough sun, and the subsequent impact on their pattern of sleep.
SAD was first identified in a woman who had been diagnosed with a severe recurrent depression that lasted for years, but only appeared in the wintertime. Though she moved to several different cities over the course of her illness, all of them were located in the North, and were impacted by cold winters with shortened days. Her profound symptoms showed a marked improvement following a trip to the sunny climate of the Caribbean, but worsened again upon her return home. Acting upon this observation, her psychiatrist tried exposing her to artificial light to replicate the effect of the sun, and the treatment was successful.
The symptoms of SAD vary from person to person, but people who suffer from it often feel ill in the mornings. They have a difficult time waking up, exhibit a marked lack of energy throughout the day, and are unable to concentrate. SAD sufferers generally have unusual cravings for sweets and carbohydrates that lead to weight gain; they also lose interest in activities that normally give them pleasure, including hobbies and spending time with family and friends, and they lose their sex drive as well. These are all classic signs of depression.
As more and more has come to be understood about this condition, doctors have determined that Seasonal Affective Disorder is related to the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that is produced in our pineal gland, which is located just behind our eyes. Its function is directly related to exposure to bright light, and it has been directly linked to our ability to sleep. Very little melatonin is produced within our bodies when we are out in the sun, but production increases once the sun sets. It is the presence of melatonin in our bloodstream that tells our bodies that it is time to go to bed – melatonin makes us feel tired and lowers our body temperature. Melatonin is the chemical that makes animals prepare for and go into winter. It tells them to increase their fat stores in preparation for the cold, and keeps them sleeping throughout their hibernation. Some insomnia sufferers have found synthetic melatonin to be an effective sleep aid.
Though there are medications and behavioral adjustments that have been helpful to those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, the quickest and easiest treatment has been increased exposure to bright light. The impact of SAD is apparently tied to the light itself – not the sun’s warmth – so artificial lights that produce enough intensity are enough to counter the absence of sunlight that those who live far from the equator go through during the winter months. Light is measured in units called “lux”, and though the difference between bright outdoor sunlight and average room light is vast – 100,000 lux compared to 250-500 – lights that produce 2,500 lux have been designed for SAD treatment and are easily available and inexpensive.
If you believe that you might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, it is a good idea to see your doctor or mental health care practitioner. Though there is no specific test for SAD, he can rule out any physical problems that may need to be addressed. Light therapy is generally the easiest and most effective treatment for the disorder, but in some cases the use of antidepressants has also been recommended.
There are a few things that people who suspect that they have Seasonal Affective Disorder can do to try to alleviate their symptoms. These things may be worth trying for yourself if you suspect that you are negatively affected by the decreasing amount of light in your area each year.
- Make sure that you are taking advantage of whatever natural sunlight is available each day. Even if it is cold, wrap yourself up warmly and go outside for a walk. Make sure that all of your windows are open so that you are maximizing your exposure to the sun. Run your errands during the daytime if possible, and if you work in an office see if you can secure a window seat.
- Increase your exposure to bright light of any kind. Rooms that have skylights or large windows can be helpful, and if you have been suffering each winter it may be worth the investment to have them installed in your home.
- Purchase a light that is made for the treatment of seasonal affective disorder, or make one for yourself – using two four-foot long fluorescent light tubes is generally enough to produce the melatonin that your body is lacking. Make sure that you are able to locate it in a place where you can sit comfortably in front of the lights. The amount of time you need will depend upon the brightness of the light, but if you are using a light source that produces 10,000 lux you’ll only need about fifteen minutes….2,500 lux may require two to three hours of exposure.