With the arrival of winter comes the much hyped cold and flu season, but also another less discussed condition called seasonal affective disorder, appropriately acronymed SAD. Nearly everyone has days when the chilly, cloudy weather gets them down, or they get a little lethargic or stir crazy from being stuck inside. But, when these symptoms persist for days or weeks at a time, things may be more serious.
Seasonal affective disorder is characterized by a change in mood that coincides with a seasonal transition, usually at the onset of winter, but also, more rarely, in the spring. Symptoms include a drop in energy, increased moodiness or irritability, loss of interest in activities, weight gain, and excessive sleeping. SAD is more prevalent in females, people living further from the equator, and also increases in incidence in people with a family history of mental health issues.
As with most mental and emotional conditions, the root causes of seasonal affective disorder are complex, and not yet fully understood. One explanation is that the decrease in sunlight exposure leads to a drop in serotonin production; serotonin is one of the human body’s primary “happiness” neurotransmitters. Blood serum levels of Vitamin D, known as the sunshine vitamin because our body produces more of it when exposed to the sun, often dive in the winter. This is significant because vitamin D activates the gene which produces serotonin1. The change in circadian rhythm brought about by the shift and loss of daylight hours is also believed to contribute to SAD. The changing light exposure can cause an imbalance of melatonin, a hormone which helps regulate our body’s wake-sleep cycle.
There are several methods of treating SAD. For some people, simply keeping their windows and curtains open, getting outside as much as possible, and exercising regularly are enough to keep symptoms at bay. For other people phototherapy, either bright blue or white artificial light exposure or dawn simulation, may be prescribed. In more severe cases talk therapy, or even antidepressants, may be necessary. There are also natural remedies, including St. John’s Wort, SAMe, melatonin supplements, and omega 3 fatty acids, which have been shown to decrease the severity of symptoms2.
As with any health condition, it is important to talk to your doctor if you are concerned that you may have something a little more than the winter blues. Any treatment plan should be discussed with and monitored carefully by your physician. We at Enhanced Medical are always here to answer any questions you may have, and help you along your path to wellness in any way we can.
1 Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland. “Causal link found between vitamin D, serotonin synthesis and autism in new study.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 February 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140226110836.htm>.
2″Alternative Medicine.” Seasonal Affective Disorder. Mayo Clinic. Web. 13 Jan. 2015. <http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/basics/alternative-medicine/con-20021047>.