Shortened days, gray skies, and a lack of bright sunshine—all elements that seem to make many of us feel less than stellar throughout the long winter months. Toward the end of autumn, many people begin to lament the oncoming winter season with comments of, "I hate winter!" and, "I can't wait for spring to come"—even before the first frost arrives. What many people do not realize is that the feeling may not just be a longing for suntans, swimming pools, and visits to the beach. There may be an underlying condition called "seasonal affective disorder" that can be responsible for the feelings we more commonly refer to as bouts of "the winter doldrums," "winter blues," and "cabin fever." In fact, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) states that upwards of half a million people in the United States may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) also known as winter-onset depression.
The AAFP defines SAD as a type of depression that is triggered by the seasons. Symptoms usually begin in late fall or early winter and go away by summer. There is also a less common type of SAD referred to as summer-onset depression that usually begins in the late spring or early summer and ends by winter. The AAFP notes that seasonal affective disorder may be related to the changes in the amount of daylight a person receives during the different times of the year. SAD is more common in women than in men and although some children and teenagers may be impacted by SAD, it usually doesn't impact those younger than 20 years of age. In adulthood, the risk of SAD decreases as a person gets older. Those in the northern regions, where the winter season is longer and more severe, are more susceptible to developing winter-onset SAD.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of fall and winter SAD (winter depression) include:
Symptoms for the less prevalent spring and summer SAD (summer depression) include:
Although the specific causes of seasonal affective disorder are still unknown, the Mayo Clinic notes that variables such as associated mental health conditions, age, genetics, and a person's individual natural body chemistry all play parts in the potential to develop seasonal affective disorder.
There are, however, certain elements that the Mayo Clinic cites as being specific contributing factors to a person possibly developing seasonal affective disorder:
Circadian rhythm: The circadian rhythm is the physiological process in an individual's body that helps regulate the body's internal clock—telling you when it is time to be asleep or time to awaken. Disruption of the body's natural clock can cause depression and some research has indicated that the reduced levels of sunlight in the autumn and winter may disrupt the circadian rhythm in certain people.
Melatonin: Melatonin is a sleep-related hormone produced by the body. Melatonin production in the body usually increases during the long nights of winter and some researchers believe seasonal affective disorder may be linked to melatonin.
Serotonin: A lack of serotonin, a neurotransmitter produced naturally in the brain that affects mood, may also be tied to seasonal affective disorder. Reduced sunlight can cause a decrease in serotonin, which researchers believe could lead to depression.
The Mayo Clinic notes that most people have days where they feel down or blue. It is when such feelings continue for days at a time, you lose motivation and interest in things you once enjoyed, and sleep patterns and appetite have changed that the Mayo Clinic advises seeking medical attention. Treatments for seasonal affective disorder vary with the person being treated. Some people may benefit from medications such as antidepressants while others may find relief in increased exposure to sunlight through the use of light therapy. Although not yet approved as treatment option by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), light therapy has shown some promise in relieving the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Light therapy involves sitting in front of a specialized light therapy box that exposes the patient to very bright light. This light exposure mimics outdoor light and causes a biochemical change in the brain that improves mood.
For those dealing with seasonal affective disorder, the Mayo Clinic suggest the following tips to use in conjunction with treatment by your doctor, for coping with the condition:
Each of us has a down day now and then. By recognizing the signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, you will be better able to determine when you or your family members may be at risk of something more serious than just feeling the winter blahs.
As with any situation regarding your health, consult with your family physician or health care provider to discuss your particular health situation.
Articles are provided for the general interest of our readers. Gerber Life Insurance is not responsible for any content and recommends that you consult the appropriate professional with any questions or concerns you may have concerning any financial or health related issues.
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