For many people, the arrival of cold weather brings more than just the inconvenience of bundling up under layers of clothes.
The change of seasonal conditions can trigger a serious psychological disruption that can reach the extent of full blown depression. Suffering from wintertime blues is otherwise known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and it affects a large percentage of the population in regions where winters are long and harsh. However, seasonal changes can also occur in other parts of the year, with spring or summer triggering the onset of symptoms.
Despite its relatively frequent occurrence and serious consequences, SAD is still poorly understood outside of professional circles and many people suffering from it fail to recognize the nature of their problem or realize that effective treatments are available. Here is a brief overview of this disorder and the most successful therapeutic methods currently in use:
What are the early signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD is predominantly understood as a mood disorder, and some of its most obvious manifestations are related to energy levels and mood. People suffering from this condition tend to suddenly lose their drive and experience problems with sleep and eating patterns, often followed by a withdrawal from their community and strong feelings of inadequacy or loss.
People with SAD often display signs of agitation without a true reason, or express a high level of anxiety towards the future. Loss of libido is also commonly associated with SAD, while poor concentration can make it difficult to maintain an effective professional life.
What can happen in extreme cases?
While it may seem benign, SAD is actually a type of major depressive disorder and may also be connected with the bipolar disorder. Consequently, it can lead to severe psychophysical disturbances that include chronic insomnia, weight loss or weight gain, an inability to make routine decisions, and a deterioration of social relationships.
Negative or even suicidal thoughts can occur if the condition is neglected or there are extenuating circumstances. Individuals with recurring episodes of seasonal affective disorder must seek professional assistance and undergo active therapy in order to avoid its most damaging effects on their health.
Where does SAD most commonly occur?
Distribution of this disorder is directly related to climate, with people that live in a region that receives the least amount of sunlight under the greatest risk. SAD is quite common in the Scandinavian countries and across Northern Europe, with around 10% of the Dutch population and as many as 20% of Irish citizens susceptible to it.
In the United States, the rate varies significantly from one state to another, with Alaska having the most prevalent SAD occurrence at around 9%. Interestingly, the disorder is quite rare in Japan and Iceland despite their cold seasonal weather, perhaps because inhabitants of those countries consume a lot of vitamin D due to primarily fish-based diets.
The advantages of light therapy
The mechanism that causes SAD is still largely unknown, but the condition seems to be directly related to lack of atmospheric light during the cold part of the year and the corresponding changes in the brain chemistry. Based on this assumption, bright light therapy was devised as a way to make up for the missing light. It was found to be moderately effective, with one hour of exposure to intense artificial light per day sufficient to create improvements.
However, a large percentage of patients find this treatment method physically uncomfortable, which discourages them from attending treatment sessions. More recently, therapeutic sessions were expanded to provide a full “dawn simulation”, making the experience more natural and less stressful.
Treating SAD with medicaments
Another approach to SAD treatment involves pharmaceuticals administered during critical periods to reduce the impact of the mood changes and stabilize the sleeping and eating patterns. Antidepressants can be effective for this purpose, with fluoxetine and paroxetine most commonly prescribed by the doctors as first-line defense against this disorder.
Nootropics are another category of drugs that can provide relief to victims of SAD, with several chemicals including L-Theanine, Citicoline, and N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine believed to be effective, particularly with cognitive aspects of the condition. In combination with counseling and light exposure, those medicaments can take the edge out of SAD and make it far more manageable.