Seasonal Affective Disorder: What you need to know

For some, winter brings visions of snuggling in front of a cozy fire, hot chocolate and family gatherings. For others, the shorter days and limited exposure to sunlight causes a despondency known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD.

“Seasonal affective disorder is an issue that is relatively common and impacts four to six percent of the people in the U.S. Most of the people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder are women,” said Dr. Asim Shah, a professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and vice chair of community psychiatry at the Baylor College of Medicine. “Since it presents itself in winter we also call it winter depression or the winter blues. It happens in areas where winter is more prominent because the sun goes down more quickly.”sad-blog-photo

There is no diagnostic test that determines whether someone has the disorder or not. However, symptoms of SAD are similar to those of depression. The symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Tiredness
  • Irritability
  • A lack of interest in activities
  • Appetite problems

According to Shah, the treatment options medication-wise for SAD are the same as they are for depression. However, phototherapy and melatonin are also used to treat SAD for those impacted during the winter months.

“In winter you usually have SAD because you don’t have enough light, which is why we use phototherapy. We use melatonin because when exposed to light your melatonin is secreted, which helps you sleep at night. If your day is shorter and you don’t have enough light, you won’t have enough melatonin secreted, which will make you sleepy. Sleep is an essential part of life and if you don’t sleep well you can become sad or even depressed,” Shah said.

One measure that Shah recommends using to minimize or prevent SAD during winter is to have artificial bright lights at your home and office to help stimulate your body to secrete melatonin.

Shah notes that SAD does not just occur during the winter months. There is a variation of SAD for summer called summer depression.

To visit with a Baylor psychiatrist, make an appointment online or call 713-798-4857.

-By Julia Bernstein

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