Seasonal Affective Disorder is often misunderstood and even dismissed as the winter blues. However, its symptoms are all too real: a depression that comes with a seasonal pattern, usually occurring in winter.
SAD usually begins in the fall and then gets worse as colder weather moves in during the winter. Generally speaking, the depression brings symptoms like lethargy, as well as a decrease in sleep and activity levels. Often, those suffering from the condition have difficulty concentrating, feelings of apathy and angry outbursts. SAD can also lead to suicidal thoughts.
But what causes it? Several studies done throughout the 30 years since the term was first coined offer some insight.
Changes in your body's circadian rhythms
Your body and its circadian rhythms are dependent on light, specifically sunlight. In the winter, though, there is a lot less sunlight during the day and many of us don't get outside much in the colder weather. This confuses your internal clock. Previous studies show that people who work night shifts and hours that prevent them from getting a lot of light often suffer from depression.
About two percent of the U.S. population suffers from SAD, but in Alaska, a place that gets a lot less sunlight, especially in the winter, that percentage jumps up to 10 percent.
Vitamin D deficiency
Less sunlight also means less vitamin D. A study done by the University of Georgia recently showed the link between vitamin D deficiency and depression.
"We hypothesize that rather than functioning primarily as a proximal or direct sub-mechanism in the etiology of SAD, vitamin D likely functions in a more foundational and regulative role in potentiating the sub-mechanisms associated with the depressive and seasonality factors," says the researchers.
Similar to depression, SAD seems to run in families. According to Norman E. Rosenthal, MD, SAD shows a "genetic disposition" and that there are "genetic variants that appear to be associated with those who have SAD."
Rosenthal also points out that seasonal affective disorder is four times more common in women. However researchers don't understand why, although one, Kelly Rohan, Ph.D, believes it has something to do with how women handle emotions, stating that "women ruminate on feelings more than men."
The holidays bring joy for many, but for many others, they also bring stress and depression caused by financial problems, loneliness, grief and unrealistic expectations that come with the holidays. This makes it harder for some to cope.
The good news is that there are certain things you can do to overcome the feelings associated with SAD. First, experts recommend getting plenty of light. Even if the weather is nasty, getting outside and getting natural light will help keep your body's internal clock in check. You can also take vitamin D supplements, as well as do activities that decrease stress levels, such as yoga or other exercise. Experts also suggest skipping the sugar and eating healthier meals.
If all else fails, the best advice is to seek help from a qualified professional. SAD is a very real illness. The good news is that it's treatable.
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