As the gray days of winter drag on, many are struggling with chemical changes in the brain triggered by being closed up inside through shorter days with less sunlight, resulting in a depressive state known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. SAD in women is 4x more common than in men, so we’re shining a light on this condition and how to find help if you need it.
For most people, periods of sadness or mild depression aren’t uncommon, but for those suffering from SAD, these overwhelming feelings are a regular part of life throughout the winter months. Year after year. Sometimes called Seasonal Depression, this condition describes a serious depressive disorder that experts believe is triggered by reduced sunlight and vitamin D levels causing a disturbance in the normal production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for stabilizing our mood and feelings of well-being, and melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep and our sense of a ‘biological clock’.
This condition affects roughly 5% of the U.S., or over 15 million people each year and tends to first appear in young adulthood. According the to National Institute of Mental Health, SAD is diagnosed four times more often than in men, though the reasons for this are still be studied, with some attributing the appearance of SAD symptoms coinciding with hormonal changes in women surrounding puberty, following pregnancy, and during perimenopause, or menopausal transition.
With so many affected, and so much still unknown, it is important to know the signs and symptoms to be aware of so that you are empowered to recognize a need for help as early as possible.
Similar to other forms of depression, each individual’s case will vary from that of others in both the severity and number of symptoms, but years of studies and research into what people, especially women, share about what SAD looked and felt like for them show a number of commonalities:
As the name of the condition implies, these symptoms tend to begin in mild, almost unnoticeable ways in the early fall months, and proceed to worsen through the shorter, darker winter months. The brighter days of spring alleviates these symptoms until the cycle repeats, if left unaddressed. That’s why it is important to examine what can be done to lessen or prevent this condition from becoming a problem and recognizing that treatment and relief are available.
Knowing what the condition looks like and how it can affect you is a great start, and we encourage you to read more from trustworthy, helpful sources like Mental Health America, the DHHS Office on Womens Health, or the National Institute of Mental Health to give you and those you care for the best chance at recognizing this condition and how it could be affecting you. This self-education and support from loved ones, combined with open, ongoing dialogue with your doctor, improves the awareness needed to recognize and address this very uniquely debilitating condition.
The good news is that those affected can find relief both in simple ways, as well as with help from your doctor. A common and accessible first step is taking a simple vitamin D supplement, combined with the use of light therapy, where a person relaxes for 30-45 minutes in front of a specialty bright-light box which produces 10,000 lux or more – 20x brighter than standard home lighting, as it approximates intense afternoon sun. These are commercially available and relatively inexpensive, but always check with your doctor whether there are any concerns based on your unique factors, especially if you have existing conditions involving eyesight.
Another accessible and common approach is talk therapy, or CBT related to the condition. Long term studies comparing reports from those using either light therapy or talk therapy show that both were very helpful in bringing relief from SAD symptoms, though light therapy proved a more immediate source of help, whereas talk therapy provided more effective long-term help from addressing other sources of stress management and coping strategies.
Finally, it is possible that your doctor may supplement these other approaches by prescribing the use of antidepressants or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to treat the problem by regulating serotonin levels. This group of medications is commonly prescribed for conditions surrounding depression and have a proven record of helping millions lead happier lives. Make sure that you fully and openly discuss your questions and concerns about any medications and their possible side-effects with your doctor, and use sources like the Mental Health Medications information from the National Institute of Mental Health, or the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus program for plain-language, trustworthy FAQ style information on these medications.
Axia Women’s Health and our family of providers are always here for you to be an open, compassionate ear for your questions and concerns, and can connect you with the help you may need. Please know that it is not only okay to ask for help, it’s essential, no matter how hard that first step may seem. Help is available, and treatment works. If you think seasonal affective disorder may be a reality for you for those you care for, don’t suffer in silence.