Shea’s Health Corner: Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Shea’s Health Corner: Seasonal Affective Disorder

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During this time of year, we begin to see the weather change and the sun dwindle away earlier than anyone would ever expect. Not getting enough sunlight during the cold fall/winter months can cause our bodies to lack vitamin D, and bring “seasonal depression.” These two things together are known as Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) occurs in late fall/early winter and goes away during the spring and summer. For those who suffer from SAD, doctors often diagnose them when they experience symptoms such as low energy, hypersomnia, overeating, weight gain, social withdrawal, “hibernation,” and anxiety. Why SAD occurs is a medical mystery, but studies have shown a few different areas that have seem to cause SAD symptoms.

First, it is shown that some people have a harder time regulating serotonin, one of the key neurotransmitters in our bodies. By this, it means that these people have higher serotonin levels and the serotonin transporter proteins leaves less serotonin at the synapse because the transporter is at the presynaptic neuron.

Second, studies have shown that people who are diagnosed with SAD may overproduce the hormone melatonin. Melatonin helps regulate sleep and as the winter days become shorter, melatonin production increases, which causes SAD people to be more tired and lethargic. Lastly, SAD sufferers do not produce enough vitamin D to maintain their body functions, and it’s believed that vitamin D plays a role in the activity of serotonin and depression.  

There are remedies out there to help those who suffer from SAD, such as medication, light therapy, psychotherapy, and vitamin D. Listed below are the different ways SAD can be treated with these different remedies. If you or someone you know who might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, contacting your local doctor or getting a specific light therapy can help ease these symptoms!

MedicationsSelective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are used to treat SAD. Also, bupropion is used to help treat those who suffer from SAD.

Light Therapy: Light therapy has been a mainstay of treatment for SAD since the 1980s. The idea behind light therapy is to replace the diminished sunshine characteristic of the fall and winter months using daily exposure to bright, artificial light. Symptoms of SAD may be relieved by sitting in front of a light box first thing in the morning, on a daily basis from the early fall until spring. Most typically, light boxes filter out the ultraviolet rays and require 20-60 minutes of exposure to 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light, an amount that is about 20 times greater than ordinary indoor lighting.

Psychotherapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that is effective for SAD. Traditional cognitive behavioral therapy has been adapted for use with SAD (CBT-SAD). CBT-SAD relies on basic techniques of CBT, such as identifying negative thoughts and replacing them with more positive thoughts along with a technique called behavioral activation. Behavioral activation seeks to help the person identify activities that are engaging and pleasurable, whether indoors or outdoors, to improve coping with winter.

Vitamin D: At present, vitamin D supplementation by itself is not regarded as an effective SAD treatment. The reason behind its use is that low blood levels of vitamin D were found in people with SAD. The low levels are usually due to insufficient dietary intake or insufficient exposure to sunshine. However, the evidence for its use has been mixed. While some studies suggest vitamin D supplementation may be as effective as light therapy, others found vitamin D had no effect.