The common cold is synonymous with times of year when temperatures dip. When people spend more time indoors, they’re more vulnerable to contagious cold viruses. But the common cold is not the only health issue that presents itself most often when the mercury drops.
Seasonal affective disorder, also known as “SAD,” affects millions of people every year. The National Institute of Mental Health notes that SAD is a type of depression characterized by its recurrent seasonal pattern. Symptoms of SAD, which can include nearly daily and day-long feelings of depression, changes in appetite or weight and feelings of lower energy, last around four to five months.
Researchers are unsure about the exact cause of SAD, but in most people, its onset is believed to be connected to the reduction in hours of sunlight during the winter. (WebMD notes that around 10 percent of people with SAD get it in the reverse, experiencing symptoms of depression at the onset of summer as opposed to winter.) Despite uncertainty about the causes of SAD, the NIMH notes there are ways to treat the condition. And it might benefit people who have experienced SAD to begin treatment prior to winter, as NIMH notes treatments that begin before fall could help to prevent or reduce the depression associated with the condition.
Individuals who suspect they have SAD should relay their concerns to their health care provider, who will then ask patients to fill out a questionnaire to determine if symptoms meet the criteria for SAD. If such a diagnosis is confirmed, individuals may be presented with any of the following treatment options.
The NIMH notes that light therapy has been used to treat SAD since the 1980s. The crux of light therapy is to expose individuals with SAD to bright light every day with the hope that such exposure can serve as a stand-in for natural sunlight. Individuals undergoing light therapy typically begin their day sitting in front of a very bright light box for around 30 to 45 minutes. The boxes filter out potentially harmful UV light, but alternative therapies may be recommended for individuals with certain eye diseases or those taking particular medications.
According to the NIMH, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been adapted to help treat people with SAD. CBT is a type of talk therapy, and CBT-SAD typically entails two weekly group sessions for six weeks. These sessions focus on replacing negative thoughts related to winter with more positive thoughts. The therapy also tries to help individuals identify and schedule pleasant, engaging indoor or outdoor activities. The NIMH notes that researchers’ comparison of CBT-SAD with light therapy found both treatments were effective at improving SAD symptoms.
Doctors may recommend patients with SAD take medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. Various types of depression have been found to disturb serotonin activity, and SAD is no exception. SSRIs have been proven to effectively improve patients’ moods, but it’s important that individuals discuss the side effects of SSRIs with their physicians prior to taking medication.
Vitamin D has been linked to improving symptoms of SAD, but the NIMH notes this is a misconception, as the research regarding vitamin D supplementation as a treatment for SAD has thus far produced mixed results.
Individuals who suspect they may have SAD are urged to speak with their physicians so they can overcome this often treatable condition.