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Seasonal Affective Disorder

Some People suffer from symptoms of depression during the winter months, with symptoms subsiding during the spring and summer months. These symptoms may be a sign of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a mood disorder associated with depression and related to seasonal variations of light. SAD affects half a million people every winter between September and April, peaking in December, January and February.

Three out of four SAD sufferers are woman. The main age of onset of SAD is between 18 and 30 years of age. SAD occurs in both Northern and Southern hemispheres, but is extremely rare in those living within 30 degrees latitude of the equator.

A diagnosis of SAD can be made after three consecutive winters of the following symptoms if they are followed by complete remission of symptoms in the spring and summer months.

  • Depression: Misery, guilt, loss of self-esteem, hopelessness, despair and apathy
  • Anxiety: tension and inability to tolerate stress
  • Mood Changes: extremes of mood and in some, period of mania in spring and summer
  • Sleep Problems: desire to oversleep and difficulty staying awake or, sometimes disturbed sleep and early morning waking
  • Lethargy: feeling of fatigue and inability to carry out normal routine
  • Overeating: craving for starchy and sweet foods resulting in weight gain.
  • Social problems: irritability and desire to avoid social contact
  • Sexual problems: loss of libido and decreased interest in physical contact

Just as sunlight affects seasonal activities in animals (reproductive cycles and hibernation), changes in light may affect circadian rhythms (internal clocks) in humans causing some people to feel out of sync. Moreover, melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, has been linked to SAD. This hormone, which may influence symptoms of depression, is produced at increased levels in the dark. Therefore, the production of this hormone increases when days are shorter and darker.

Many people suffering from SAD show signs of weakened immune systems during the winter and may be more vulnerable to the normal infections and illnesses. Symptoms disappear in the spring either suddenly with a short period of hyperactivity or gradually, depending on the intensity of sunlight in spring and early summer.

For mild cases of SAD, daily exposure to as much natural daylight as possible, especially at midday, should help. Regular walks during daylight hours, even gloomy days, can help. Light therapy, prescribed by a physician, may be recommended for moderate cases. For serious case, light therapy, medication, counseling, or combination of these treatments maybe implemented.
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