Seasonal Affective Disorder and its Effects on the Body and Mind

For some people this time of year is, quite honestly, a struggle. It’s not just the hurry of the approaching holidays, or the long list of things to do, or the colder weather. For some people it is actually the decrease in daylight hours that cause their mood swings, and it can be very debilitating. It’s called SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, and it affects half a million Americans today.

Symptoms

Sufferers of SAD feel an overwhelming feeling of the “blues”, lethargy, hopelessness, anxiety, social withdrawal, and change in appetite. Sounds like depression, doesn’t it? The fact is that SAD is a recognized form of depression, only it comes in cycles along with the climate changes. During summer days that are bright and warm, these SAD sufferers feel happy and can function normally. But when the days are shorter and cloudier and colder, these individuals feel the depression setting in and lose interest in things, often wanting to stay in bed for days on end.

Mechanisms

SAD has been said to be caused by lack of sunlight hitting brain receptors that tell the body to sleep or wake up. A new study suggests that it is an actual mutation in a gene that is responsible for SAD. This gene regulates a pigment in the eye that controls hormone levels and sleep, and without it functioning properly, low levels of sunlight exaggerate problems in the body. Low levels of serotonin then occur, which lead to instability in mood. This theory is also backed up by the statistic that SAD seems to run in families, which also suggest a genetic factor.

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Drug and Alcohol Abuse

Another concern with SAD is that sufferers will sometimes turn to alcohol or drugs to ease their minds and pick them up, but this only adds to the problem. Sometimes it becomes a vicious cycle – the person feels bad for using drugs or alcohol, which depresses their mood even more.

Treatment

There are things that can be done about SAD and some people are able to manage it on their own. Joining a gym and exercising, or getting out and socializing rather than sleeping may be easier said than done, but will actually help the mind and body get moving again. It may seem easier to stay in bed and sleep it off, but the best thing to do is to stay active and keep the mind busy with good things.

For those that have a more severe form of SAD, or have been suffering for a long time, therapy or treatment by a professional may be necessary. Antidepressants may be prescribed, or phototherapy may be in order, which exposes the patient to artificial lights in order to stimulate the brain. Hormone treatments and psychotherapy may be other ways a physician will choose to treat SAD. The good news is that when the weather turns nicer and the days are longer, most SAD patients recover well and are able to live life again, and with help, this disorder can be overcome.

Conwell, Vikki De-stress to fight off seasonal depression The Atlanta Journal-Constitution November

Klockenga, Janet Your winter survival plan 10/27/08

Baker, Eliot As days shorten and skies darken, sufferers of SAD gear up to fight winter blues October 30, 2008

Dirk Hanson Shining New Light on Addiction SAD phototherapy may help with alcoholism September 29, 2007

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