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June 20, 2018  |  Login
Seasonal Affective Disorder
by James F. Balch, M.D. and Mark Stengler, N.D.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is characterized by symptoms of depression that develop in the dark winter months and that lift with the onset of spring and summer. Although many of us feel a little less energetic in the winter, people with SAD suffer from more than just a prolonged bad mood. They have a medical condition typified by fatigue, poor concentration, and an intense craving for carbohydrates. They may also feel an overwhelming need for sleep, although the sleep itself is rarely refreshing. This general slowdown of the body, combined with an excessive intake of carbohydrates, may lead to weight gain and a suppressed immune system. Seasonal affective disorder should not be confused with the depression that afflicts some people during the holidays, when unresolved conflicts or problems tend to rise to the surface.

The most compelling theory regarding the cause of SAD has to do with the decreased amount of light that is available in the winter. A U.S. winter's day can have fewer than eight hours of sunlight, compared to sixteen hours of sun in the summer.

In the last few years, we've learned that there's a reason that people feel more exuberant in the summer: Natural sunlight affects a substance in our bodies called melatonin, by acting as a control mechanism for it. As the sun sets, our pineal glands (located in our brains) sense the decrease in light and begin to secrete the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Melatonin secretion can be magnified by increasing our exposure to sunlight during the day. But when we're deprived of sunlight, there's nothing to keep melatonin levels in check, and it takes all our effort just to get out of our warm beds in the morning. Also, our stress hormone cortisol may rise, which contributes to fatigue, insomnia, depression, and decreased immunity. In addition, low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin may occur, which contributes to depression. Researchers have found that serotonin production is directly affected by the duration of bright sunlight.

It is unclear why some people are affected by a lack of sunlight more than others. What has been demonstrated time and time again, however, is that light therapy is the most effective way to alleviate the symptoms of SAD. If you suffer from winter depression, there's a very good chance that you'll benefit greatly from just a few simple changes: utilizing specific light therapy, installing full-spectrum lights that imitate the effects of the sun, spending time outdoors every day, and arranging your life so that you're near a window as often as possible. Other natural treatments, including dietary changes and some herbal supplements, will round out an effective course of action for lifting the "winter blues."

Next: What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

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