Feeling SAD?

For some, winter days create more problems than sluggish mornings and extra layers. As days become shorter in late fall and early winter, seasonal affective disorder rears its head, leading to depression in about 6 percent of Americans, primarily...

For some, winter days create more problems than sluggish mornings and extra layers.

As days become shorter in late fall and early winter, seasonal affective disorder rears its head, leading to depression in about 6 percent of Americans, primarily those who live in northern climates, according to Dr. Norman Rosenthal, on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is considered to be depression, not a separate ailment on its own, said Dr. Matthew Christiansen, a psychologist at Avera Queen of Peace hospital in Mitchell. However, SAD usually lets up after a few months, so it can be difficult to recognize.

“By the time they have experienced some of the stress from it, it may start to lift because they’re starting to get more sunlight, so it may take a few years for people with SAD to seek treatment once they see it’s a recurring problem,” Christiansen said.

Another 14 percent of adult Americans suffer from a lesser form of seasonal mood changes known as winter blues, which can also affect people living in southern climates, Rosenthal said.


SAD can cause a variety of ailments. An afflicted person may have a depressed mood or exhibit irritability. He or she might experience changes in appetite, weight gain or loss and, in severe cases, thoughts of suicide.

Christiansen said the disorder is not fully understood, but researchers have found connections between SAD and the amount of available light. Limited light can make quick changes in brain chemistry, daytime rhythms and sleep-wake cycles.

“Light seems pretty central to the cause even though we don’t know exactly what’s going on with it,” Christiansen said.

There is debate whether SAD is caused by a deficiency of vitamin D, a vitamin absorbed through the skin by exposure to the sun, Christiansen said. Although many people with depression have low vitamin D levels, this may be a coincidence instead of a cause.

“It’s a pretty complicated picture. With seasonal affective, vitamin D might be comorbid - it might occur at the same time - but the brain chemistry, the serotonin, melatonin, some of those are involved in the regulation of sleep cycle, those are probably more to play into SAD than low vitamin D,” Christiansen said.

Treatment options Anyone who believes he or she has SAD is encouraged to speak with a psychologist or medical doctor because it can be treated with medicine or therapy, Christiansen said. But there’s another option for treatment to consider.

Special lightboxes and lamps that mimic the sun’s wavelengths are available online and can be used to treat SAD. Prices vary from roughly $40 to $1,000.

Christiansen called it phototherapy, but encouraged anyone experiencing symptoms to talk with a doctor before purchasing one of these items. The lights are specialized, and a doctor could determine which would work best for a specific patient. Additionally, if a person is suffering from a different problem, like a thyroid issue, the lamp would be of little or no help.


To combat the problem every day, Christiansen recommends people with SAD who work inside to sit by a window if possible, and to get outside whenever possible.

He also said a combination of therapy and medicine are often prescribed to create a comprehensive treatment approach that will most likely be successful.

For people who believe a friend or family member may be afflicted, Christiansen encouraged them to open a discussion about it. He said the individual affected may not realize his or her attitude or behavior has changed or may be embarrassed to talk about it.

“Having the support from others can help,” Christiansen said. “Especially if they’re suffering irritability and not depression, other people around them might notice it more than they do, so getting that feedback could help that person get in to see their doctor.”

But winter isn’t the only season to watch out for. Although SAD is most common in late fall and early winter, some people tend to get a late spring, early summer variant of the disorder, Christiansen said, as the amount of sunlight changes again. Increased sunlight can cause someone with bipolar disorder to experience manic episodes, as well.

Christiansen said depression is more common in winter and manic episodes are more common in summer, but those are “not hard and fast” rules, so it’s important to pay attention to the symptoms throughout the year.

As for seasonal affective disorder’s name, Christiansen said he didn’t know where the name originated or if the namers intended for the acronym to spell “sad.” Either way, it’s fitting.

“With some tests, they do try to come up with some acronyms that are catchy,” Christiansen said, “but with SAD, I don’t think it was intentional.”

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