5 Things You Need to Know About SAD

Seasonal affective disorder affects people every year during winter

By Ernst Lamothe Jr.

Physician Ahmed Nizar, medical director of the comprehensive psychiatric emergency program at St. Joseph’s Health Hospital.
Physician Ahmed Nizar, medical director of the comprehensive psychiatric emergency program at St. Joseph’s Health Hospital.

Seasonal change can be a nice change of scenery for a split second, but the long-term effects are not always pleasing to everyone. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which typically occurs during the winter, is a mood disorder characterized by depression. Mostly caused when there is less sunlight and the weather is colder, it can have a crippling and overwhelming sensation in the lives of affected people.

“Seasonal affective disorder has a distinct effect on people, especially those who live in areas where they go for long periods without seeing sunlight,” said physician Ahmed Nizar, medical director of the comprehensive psychiatric emergency program at St. Joseph’s Health Hospital in Syracuse. “This is definitely the case if you live in Upstate New York.”

Nizar talks about five important facts to seasonal affective disorder.

1. SAD is not something that can be controlled

Effects of SAD is directly related to the weather, specifically wintertime when we experiment frigid temperatures and cloudy, shorter days. The condition affects people living in northern states. For example, 1% of those who live in Florida and 9% of those who live in New England or Alaska suffer from SAD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

In some people with bipolar disorder, spring and summer can bring on symptoms of mania or a less intense form of mania, while fall and winter can be a time of depression.

“Many times I have heard patients have this idea of mind over matter or that they can just control the condition,” said Nizar. “There are scientific facts that connect to why some people suffer from the condition. You can’t just will it away.”

Nizar suggests that people talk with their physicians if they feel different due to seasonal change.

“You know yourself better than anyone. If you feel that you are sleeping more or that your mood has changed, you should consult with your doctor and not feel embarrassed about bringing this up.”

2. People who are affected

About half a million people in the United States suffer from winter SAD, while 10 to 20% may suffer from a milder form of winter blues, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Three-quarters of the sufferers are women, and the depression usually starts in early adulthood. SAD also can occur in children and adolescents. Older adults are less likely to experience SAD.

Medical experts and psychologists say less exposure to sunlight alters the internal biological clock that regulates mood, sleep, and hormones is shifted. Exposure to light may reset the biological clock. Some of the symptoms include having low energy, hypersomnia, overeating, weight gain, craving carbohydrates and social withdrawal.

“With people wanting carbohydrates, feeling tired and sluggish and wanting to eat more, many times those who have SAD gain weight during the season,” said Nizar. “That can also lead to being more depressed.”

Another theory is that brain chemicals such as serotonin that transmit information between nerves may be changed in people with SAD. It is believed that exposure to light can correct these imbalances.

3. It is not related to temperature or the holidays

Another false theory is SAD occurs because of sadness around the holidays. That has been found to be untrue. In addition, another myth is that seasonal affective disorder has to do with the colder climate.

“It has nothing to do with the temperature. It has everything to do with the sunlight,” said Nizar. “You could have a 10-degree day but if the sun is shining brightly, then someone who suffers from SAD might be fine. But you could have a 40-degree day that is cloudy all day and depression might set in.”

4. Coping strategies

People who seek help for SAD typically receive counseling as they normally would with a depressive disorder. Not only can counseling help, but the patient has to be willing to want the change.

In addition, light therapy is a way to treat seasonal affective disorder and certain other conditions by exposure to artificial light. During light therapy, a person sits or works near a device called a light therapy box. The box gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. Light therapy is thought to affect brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep, easing SAD symptoms. Using a light therapy box may also help with other types of depression, sleep disorders and other conditions.

“It has been shown to work where you need an hour or so of the light box every morning,” said Nizar, “It can make a world of difference.”

5. Disorder is not new

When people hear of SAD, many believe that it is something new that hasn’t affected many people. That is far from the case. “This is something that is more common than people think. We likely have a lower number of people who report being affected, but it is something that is happening to people worldwide,” said Nizar.