Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is usually linked to changes in the seasons. For most people with this disorder, depressive symptoms begin in late autumn or early winter and subside during the spring and summer. Some people experience depression during the summer months, but this is much less common than winter depression.
Short dark days and cold temperatures can make anyone wish for sunnier summer days, but seasonal affective disorder is more than just the winter blues. People with SAD say they sleep an extra 2.5 hours each night in the winter compared with the summer months. Those with the winter blues get an extra 1.7 hours of shuteye, and people who don’t have either of these conditions log a little over 40 extra minutes of sleep during the winter. The low moods and energy drain people experience can grow into a sense of emptiness or numbness that doesn’t dissipate. Eventually, it negatively impacts the way you think, how you feel, and how you act and can get in the way of daily living.
In the U.S., approximately 14% of adults experience the winter blues, but only an estimated 6% of Americans are affected by SAD. However, experts suggest the number could be higher since the condition often goes unreported and undiagnosed. For example, people with SAD who have low levels of thyroid hormone may attribute their symptoms of lethargy and lack of motivation to hypothyroidism, so their seasonal affective disorder may go undetected.
People who are at increased risk of developing SAD include:
We are still uncovering what causes seasonal affective disorder, but research has shown that the following may be contributing factors:
People with SAD may experience many of the typical symptoms of depression, including:
People who experience SAD during the winter may experience the following symptoms:
People who experience SAD during the summer may experience the following symptoms:
It is not uncommon for SAD to co-occur with other mental health disorders, which can make it more challenging to diagnose. Other conditions that are commonly seen with SAD include:
Getting the wrong diagnosis and the wrong treatment can make your symptoms worse and keep you in a downward spiral. Traditional psychiatry typically takes a one-size-fits-all approach to diagnosis and treatment. But SAD isn’t a simple or single disorder. Giving everybody the same treatment will never work.
Brain SPECT imaging, a state-of-the-art brain mapping tool, can be very helpful in getting an accurate diagnosis for seasonal affective disorder. SPECT helps detect underlying brain dysfunction and co-occurring disorders as well as their subtype. Our brain imaging work at Amen Clinics has helped us identify:
Knowing not only that you have a co-occurring disorder, such as depression, but also your subtype plays a key role in getting an accurate diagnosis and the right treatment.
SPECT provides many additional benefits, including:
Amen Clinics uses brain SPECT imaging as part of a comprehensive evaluation to more accurately diagnose SAD so you can get a personalized treatment plan for your needs and regain your energy and zest for life. Treatment options for SAD may include helpful forms of psychotherapy, light therapy, supplementation with vitamin D and other nutraceuticals, nutrition counseling, exercise, simple tools to kill the ANTs (automatic negative thoughts), and medication (when necessary).