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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Symptoms of SAD

If you have SAD that begins in the fall, like Claire’s, you might have the following symptoms:

  • Increased need for sleep
  • Increased appetite with carbohydrate craving
  • Weight gain
  • Irritability
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Problems with relationships (being sensitive to rejection)
  • A heavy feeling in arms or legs
  • The times you've been depressed during the fall/winter season outnumbering the times you've been depressed at other times over your lifetime

When SAD begins in the spring or summer months, teens might have symptoms of depression such as weight loss, decreased need for sleep, and poor appetite.

What Are the Treatments for SAD?

There are different treatments for SAD, depending on the severity of the symptoms. If you have another type of depression or bipolar disorder, the treatment may be different.

Many doctors recommend that patients with SAD try to get outside early in the morning to increase their exposure to natural light. If this is impossible during dark winter months, antidepressant medications and/or light therapy (phototherapy) may be used. Light therapy involves a full-spectrum light that is shined directly into your eyes.

How Does Light Therapy Work for SAD?

With light therapy for SAD, you sit about 2 feet from a bright light (about 20 times brighter than normal room lighting). You start with one 10-minute to 15-minute session per day. The time is then increased to 30 minutes-45 minutes a day, depending on your response. Some teens recover within days using light therapy; others take much longer.

If the SAD symptoms don't stop, your doctor may increase the light therapy sessions to twice daily. Those who respond to light therapy are encouraged to continue until they can be out in the sunshine again in springtime. Light therapy alone may not be enough to relieve SAD. Since SAD is a form of major depression, an antidepressant may be helpful.

Some researchers link SAD to the natural hormone melatonin, which causes drowsiness. Because light modifies the amount of melatonin in the human nervous system and boosts serotonin to the brain, light therapy has an antidepressant effect. When light strikes the eye's retina, a process in the body decreases the secretion of melatonin.

When Should I Call My Doctor About SAD?

If you have feelings of depression, fatigue, and irritability that come at the same time each year, you may have a form of SAD. Talk openly with your doctor about your feelings. Follow the doctor’s recommendations for lifestyle changes and/or treatment if you have SAD.

If your health care provider recommends light therapy, ask if they provide light boxes for patients with SAD. You can also rent or purchase a light box, but they are expensive and health insurance companies do not usually cover them. While side effects are minimal with light therapy, be cautious if you have sensitive skin or have a tendency toward mania (feeling elated, excited, and unable to sleep).

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on February 13, 2014

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