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What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder

It’s no secret that New Englanders are well versed in the “winter blues.” With shortened daylight and chilly temperatures, it’s easy to feel sluggish and left longing for the summer months. For some people, however, depression during the winter is a serious problem. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that occurs the same time every year, usually beginning in the fall as the days get shorter.

SAD can cause feelings of depression, helplessness and anxiety. It can lower your energy level, change your sleep patterns, and cause difficulty concentrating. Why does all of this happen? Reduced levels of sunlight in the fall and winter months are to blame. They disrupt the body's internal clock (called circadian rhythm), which can lead to depression. Changes in sunlight can affect melatonin levels in the body, affecting sleep and mood.  Serotonin, a chemical in our brain that regulates our mood, is also disrupted.

So, how do you know if you are experiencing typical winter blues or SAD? Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Reduced interest in daily and social activities
  • Moodiness
  • Increased appetite and weight gain
  • Cravings for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Increased sleep
  • Increase in above symptoms as season progresses

If you consistently suffer from symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, contact your primary care physician. SAD can be treated with light therapy, which mimics outdoor light and appears to cause changes in the brain chemicals linked to mood. If symptoms are more severe, antidepressant drugs may be prescribed. Lifestyle changes such as getting outside more, making your house brighter and exercising regularly can also help when treating SAD.

More information on seasonal affective disorder.

Eran Metzger, M.D.'s picture

About the Blogger

Medical Director of Hebrew SeniorLife Psychiatry

Eran D. Metzger, M.D., is the medical director of psychiatry at Hebrew SeniorLife. Board certified in psychiatry, neurology and forensic psychiatry, Dr. Metzger's clinical interests focus on the interfaces between medical illness and emotional disorders, as well as medical ethics. He is a graduate of the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine and completed his internship at Brockton Hospital and his residency and fellowship at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. An assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Metzger's research interests include...

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