A few weeks ago, people set their clocks back to Central Standard Time from Central Daylight Saving Time. This annual occurrence allows more daylight hours during the spring and summer. At about the same time, some sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder began to experience symptoms of depression that can last throughout the fall and winter months.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder associated with episodes of depression related to variations of light. The amount of sunlight that people experience during the spring and summer is greater than in the late fall and winter. It is thought that if sunlight affects the hibernation and other seasonal activities of animals, it may also affect humans. A theory is that when the daylight decreases, it may change our biological rhythms, causing an individual’s “biological clock” to be different than their daily schedules.

Symptoms of SAD are: depression (including excessive eating and sleeping), weight gain, loss of energy, decreased activity, general sadness, and craving for sugary and starchy foods. Some sufferers are described as sluggish and lethargic. These symptoms can impact marriages, other relationships, and work-related activities.

Most SAD symptoms subside in spring as daylight hours begin to stretch by a few minutes each day. The most difficult months for SAD suffers are January and February.

The most common theory about the cause of the disorder is the increased level of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the brain. In the dark, it is produced at increased levels. When the days are shorter and darker, the production of the hormone increases, thus giving the body messages about sleeping, slowing down, i.e. messages that are similar to the symptoms of SAD.

Seasonal Affective Disorder should not be confused with “holiday blues,” although they share some of the same symptoms including sadness, weight gain, and lower energy. The latter is the result of increased stress during the holiday season.

Phototherapy or bright light therapy suppresses the brain’s production of melatonin, thus informing the body not to go to a sleep mode. Many individuals respond well to phototherapy. A phototherapy light box uses white fluorescent lights and a metal reflector. The person turns the light on and sits in front of the light for a period of time (about a half hour) each day. Bright light therapy has proven to effectively reduce the intensity of the SAD symptoms.

Anti-depressant medication and brief therapy for support can also be effective treatments for some sufferers of SAD.

A mental health professional can correctly diagnose and offer suggestions for treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Mark Skrien is a Licensed Psychologist, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and the retired Clinical Director of the South Central Human Relations Center.

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