Season Affective Disorder: What is it?

sad2It’s that time of year. Darkness settles in around 5:30 pm. That means less sunlight and our circadian rhythm gets all messed up. Circadian rhythm is physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in an organism’s environment. They are found in most living things, including animals, plants and many tiny microbes. Basically, sleep is off, we eat more and feel generally depressed. This is the time of year psychologists have termed a type of seasonal depression as Season Affective Disorder.

The term was first coined by Doctor Norman Rosenthal in 1984 at the National Institute of Mental Health. The condition affects approximately 10% of people in non-tropical climates with about 20% of people reporting a milder form of the condition. Typically, SAD is so subtle, it takes two to three years before it even diagnosed. Traditionally, twice as many women are diagnosed with SAD than men.

What is the cause of this? We all need sun to optimize Vitamin D production, and a lack of Vitamin D has been proven to negatively affect individuals, as it relates to depression and a healthy immune system. Another theory is a lack of serotonin production.  Biochemically derived from tryptophan, serotonin is primarily found in the gastrointestinal tract, blood platelets and the central nervous system of animals, including humans. It is popularly thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness.

sadchartWhether natural or biological, Seasonal Affective Disorder can be dangerous, particularly to those who are bipolar. The typical symptoms of SAD include: Lack of Energy, Weakened Immune System, Reduced Libido, Lack of Concentration, Overeating and Weight Gain, Alcohol or drug abuse, Feeling Guilt or Worry, Sleep Issues, Irritability, and/or Social and Relationship Problems

So what can be done about this illness? The obvious is to make an appointment with your primary care physician and/or mental health professional. Any of the ten symptoms above can lead to very serious consequences, particularly in combination. Before your appointment, jot down some of the specific things you are experiencing. Questions for the Doctor like, “Why am I experiencing a sudden loss of sleep and why am I hungry all the time?”

PrintOnce you have your appointment scheduled, as the doctor about specific treatments such as medication, psychotherapy and light therapy. I know several people in my group therapy who struggle with this every single year and they have purchased particular lighting units that house a 10,000-lux light therapy and negative ion therapy. This type of therapy helps to balance the circadian cycle, restoring sleep and waking times by getting their bodies back on a normal clock schedule.

Remember, this can affect anyone. Please schedule an appointment with your doctor should you be experiencing any of these symptoms.

Story by Fred Terling for Pennsylvania Bridges