Most people who suffer from SAD feel mildly to moderately depressed, but some people experience severe depression. The National Alliance on Mental Illness lists oversleeping, daytime fatigue, carbohydrate craving and weight gain as signs of SAD, as well as symptoms of generalized depression, such as decreased sexual interest, lethargy, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts and loss of interest in your normal activities. Symptoms vary from person to person.
To be diagnosed with SAD, "An individual must exhibit the depressive symptoms a minimum of two years in a row, and the symptoms must appear only when a certain season starts," said Daniela Roher, PhD, LPC, a psychotherapist with offices in Scottsdale and Carefree, Arizona. "Often the season is winter, but not necessarily," Dr. Roher said. "The peak of SAD in Arizona is August, when there are a lot of cloudy days because of monsoon season."
Let the sunshine in
Because SAD is more common in northern states (which receive less winter sunlight than southern states), and because light therapy is an effective treatment for SAD, reduced hours of sunshine appear to be a major contributing factor to the disorder.
According to NAMI, studies show that bright white fluorescent light, with color temperatures between 3,000 and 6,500 degrees Kelvin, can reverse SAD symptoms. Lower color temperatures produce less glare and higher color temperatures produce a skylight hue.
Light therapy can begin to alleviate symptoms within days of starting treatment. Studies suggest that when patients use light therapy throughout the season, between 50 and 80 percent show complete remission of symptoms. Daily sessions typically range from 20 to 60 minutes, depending in part on the light intensity used (lower intensities require longer sessions).
Since the healing effect of light therapy may be associated with the patient's internal circadian rhythm clock, most patients benefit by morning exposure because it moves up the clock. You can assess your circadian rhythm type at the nonprofit Center for Environmental Therapeutics (CET). CET offers extensive information about bright light therapy, too.
Additional treatment options
Other treatments that have proven effective, according to the National Institutes of Health and MayoClinic.com, include:
- Antidepressant medications.
- A high-protein diet that's rich in the amino acid tryptophan, which your body needs to produce the mood-enhancing chemical serotonin.
- Exercise, which releases endorphins (another mood-enhancing chemical), reduces immune system chemicals that can worsen depression, and increases body temperature, which may have calming effects.
MayoClinic.com also suggests that people with SAD may benefit from:
- Taking melatonin, a natural hormone that helps regulate mood.
- Taking mega-3 fatty acids acid (found in fatty, cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel and herring; flaxseed, flax oil and walnuts and in over-the-counter nutritional supplements).
- Managing stress through acupuncture, yoga, meditation, guided imagery and massage therapy.
- Optimizing sunlight by opening blinds, adding skylights, sitting closer to bright windows and spending more time outdoors.
- Seeing a psychotherapist to help identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that may make you feel worse.
People who are depressed often don't have the energy or motivation to get help. So if you recognize SAD symptoms in your partner, consider taking the initiative.
"One of the things people who suffer from SAD do is to isolate themselves," said "Dr. Roher, who counsels individuals and couples. "Everything takes too much effort, including socializing. People with SAD would rather stay home and watch TV and sleep. Discourage them from doing that. Get them out."
Encouraging your partner to get help may also be a challenge. "Try to explain to the person that it's not a sign of weakness or stigma to get help," said Dr. Rohr. "Don't make your partner feel guilty or embarrassed. And don't take your partner's behavior personally. They are suffering from a real condition. To a great extent, people who suffer from SAD don't have control over how they feel."
If you or your partner exhibits SAD symptoms, make an appointment with a health care provider for a diagnosis and to discuss treatment options.