More than winter blues

Seasonal Affective Disorder

As the cold weather approaches, it’s easy to feel down.

But while winter can be difficult for many of us, it can be even tougher for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD is a type of seasonal depression that mostly occurs during the fall and winter months. However, it’s also been known to affect some people during late spring and early summer.

The main symptom of SAD is a despairing mood that is present most of the day, occurs most days, lasts for more than two weeks and impairs daily life, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
They also list other symptoms, including:

  • Sleep problems
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Loss of interest in work, hobbies, people or sex
  • Withdrawal from social connections
  • Feeling useless, guilty, hopeless, pessimistic, or hard on oneself
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating, remembering and making decisions

In extreme cases, SAD can even cause suicidal thoughts and a loss of touch with reality.

People who are affected by SAD in the summer may experience different, and sometimes opposite, symptoms (e.g. insomnia rather than excess sleep).

What causes SAD?

While the cause of SAD is unconfirmed, one factor may be the brain’s pineal gland. This gland secretes melatonin, a hormone that controls sleep.

When darkness hits, the pineal gland secretes melatonin to prepare us for sleep. When sunlight hits our eyes in the morning, the pineal gland stops secreting melatonin, preparing us for wakefulness.

Many Canadians who have typical work or school hours wake up before the winter sun rises. This means that melatonin production takes longer to wind down. If you find it hard to wake up in the colder months, melatonin may be why.

Many of us are also confined indoors at school or work during daylight hours, which means we may lose exposure to direct sunlight for months at a time.

Among others, these factors contribute to the development of SAD. And you don’t need to have had depression or other mental illnesses to be affected.

How is SAD treated?

Treatment is based on severity, but it typically involves light therapy. Patients sit next to full-spectrum white lights, which simulate sunlight.

Exercise is also recommended, and it’s even more effective when combined with sunlight (for instance, using an exercise bike while next to a light box, or jogging outside on a lunch break).

To find savings with fitness and wellness providers, see our provider list.

In cases where symptoms are severe, antidepressant medication may be considered.

If you think you might have Seasonal Affective Disorder, please consult a doctor.

To learn more about Seasonal Affective Disorder, see the CAMH website.