If you feel a little extra blue when the seasons change—from fall to winter or even from spring to summer—you may be one of the 5 percent of the US population who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
“SAD is traditionally associated with the winter months, but some people experience it in the fall or the spring. Simply the change of light can trigger it,” says Dr. Brad Jacobs, MD, and chair of Pharmaca’s Integrative Health Advisory Board. “SAD basically equates to changes of behavior or mood that are associated with the seasons.”
While we don’t know exactly how or why SAD occurs, we know that reduced sunlight can disrupt our internal clocks, setting off changes in our mood. People suffering from SAD usually feel blue, have trouble sleeping, have low energy levels, and are irritable or impatient, says Dr. Jacobs. While the symptoms are usually not felt as severely as major depression, the signs are fairly similar.
We also know that Seasonal Affective Disorder tends to be four times more prevalent in women, especially during childbearing years. And if you have a family history of SAD or any type of depression, you’re also more prone to it.
So how do you know what you’ve got is actually SAD? Dr. Jacobs recommends first speaking to your health care provider about your thyroid levels and blood counts--if they're abnormal, they can be mistaken for depression, instead of hypothyroidism or anemia. In addition, be sure to manage any and all chronic conditions, as these can exacerbate symptoms of depression; optimal management of chronic conditions may resolve or dramatically improve symptoms of depression.
Dr. Jacobs recommends speaking to your health care provider about your thyroid levels, blood counts or any other chronic conditions that could increase your chances of experiencing SAD. Ultimately, if you have noticed yourself feeling sad or depressed during one specific season—and not during the others—doctors will look more closely at the chances you have SAD.
The most important thing is to diagnose it, says Dr. Jacobs, so you can start treating it. “One I’m a big proponent of, which is good for regular depression too, is photo or light therapy,” he says. Look for a lightbox with at least 10,000 lux, to be used for 30 minutes once or twice daily. (Lux is a photometric unit. For reference, Dr. Jacobs says, direct sunlight equates to about 50,000 lux, and office lighting about 300-500 lux.)
“A light box will give you the light stimulation that you’re missing,” says Dr. Jacobs, adding that studies have shown light therapy to be as effective as SSRIs (i.e. anti-depressants) in treating SAD, but with fewer side effects.
Another effective treatment? Exercise. “We typically recommend that you do it 5-6 days week/30 minutes per day in order to see those same results as an anti-depressant,” he says.
“There are also a number of herbs that may be effective—the same herbs you think about for depression,” says Dr. Jacobs. He recommends St. John’s wort or SAM-e, and working with a practitioner when you do.