For many, the first day of autumn kicks off a season of apple picking, foliage tours, and evenings by the fire pit. But for others, it signals the beginning of a months-long struggle with depression, brought about by a significant reduction in sunlight.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) is a form of depression triggered by seasonal change. For the majority of those impacted, depression begins to set in in late autumn, as the amount of sunlight each day is reduced, and continues through winter. Symptoms are similar to those of other types of depression, and include a change in appetite, weight gain, loss of energy, and irritability.
It’s estimated that 10-20% of people in the U.S. struggle with at least mild Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.), and as many as six percent of the population experiences significant winter depression. The shorter autumn days can disrupt your body’s Circadian rhythm, cause a drop in serotonin levels and an increase in melatonin levels, and cause a decrease in vitamin D. Taken together, these changes can lead to feelings of lethargy and depression.
SAD is significantly more common the farther north you go, as the days get even shorter compared to those to the south. For example, it affects only 1% of Florida residents, but 10% of Alaskans. The condition impacts four times more women than men, and generally becomes noticeable in our early 20s.
Prevention and Avoidance
There is no known prevention for S.A.D., but it’s believed that a family history and other depressive disorders increase the risk. Talking with your doctor before the darker seasons begin may be helpful, and many take advanced action to mitigate the impacts of winter depression.
Treatments range from light therapy and anti-depression medications, to lifestyle changes, to alternative medicines.
- Light Therapy is perhaps the most common and recognizable treatment option. Light therapy boxes vary is size, style, and intensity, but all create artificial light that simulates sunshine. The output dictates how long each light session should last–higher output, or Lux, requires shorter sessions. When effective, people generally starting feeling the impact within a few days.
- Anti-depressant medication might be called for when symptoms are more severe. Bupropion, commonly used for other forms of depression, as well as a smoking cessation aid, is commonly prescribed for S.A.D. sufferers. It’s a slow-release medication and treatment is most effective when started before the onset of symptoms.
- Environmental and lifestyle changes have also been shown to mitigate the impacts of winter depression. Opening curtains to allow more light in, getting outside to soak up whatever sunlight is available, and regular exercise have all been shown to improve peoples’ moods and boost energy levels. And a well-balanced, nutritious diet is known to help reduce symptoms of depression.
- Suppliments, such as St. John’s wort and melatonin, have become more popular in recent years, as interest in natural remedies grows. There’s little scientific research on the effectiveness of supplimets on S.A.D, but many people report significant improvements in their symptoms. It’s important to consult with a physician, however, before starting a regimen; some supplements are known to interfere with other medications.
As we head into autumn and winter, now is the time to make a plan for getting through the darker days to come. There is no cure for S.A.D. or winter depression, but with the right tools and a well defined plan, these conditions can be managed. Talk with your physician, let as much light into your home as possible, and adopt healthy habits. You might even find that the coming months can be exciting and enjoyable!