Sunlight has become elusive; has your energy and mood gone with it? Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects about two percent of the population, according to Dr. Wei-Jen Huang, of Northwestern’s Counseling and Psychology Services (CAPS).
To be diagnosed with SAD, the patient must experience depressive episodes that occur only during the winter months, for at least two years in a row. The symptoms can’t be linked to any other outlying causes, like the holidays or financial issues.
The milder form of SAD, known as subsyndromal SAD, or the “winter blues,” affects about 1 in 10 people.
“Northwestern students tend to have pretty high rates due to the high latitude,” Huang said. Because Chicago is located so far north, there are fewer hours of sunlight during the day. Other factors, like stress and family history, also increase a person’s chances of developing SAD.
“I think the sun really makes a huge difference, especially in Chicago when it’s so cold,” SESP sophomore Scott Topal said. “It gets dark really early.”
During winter, the body produces less serotonin, a brain chemical that decreases aggression and improves mood, according to reports by the Mayo Clinic. Depression, poor memory, and difficulty concentrating have been linked to low levels of serotonin.
The most common symptoms, according to Robert Hsiung, M.D., at the University of Chicago, are increased sleep, appetite and weight gain. In the winter, the body increases production of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone. And is that pasta and soda looking tastier than usual? Almost 90 percent of those diagnosed with SAD reported an increased craving for carbohydrates.
Huang said that SAD patients are often apathetic, more irritable, and avoid contact with others.
Going untreated, SAD can lead to withdrawl from social situations, problems at work or at home, substance abuse, or even suicidal thoughts and behaviors, says the Mayo Clinic.
At Northwestern, CAPS offers “a few things above traditional depression treatment” for SAD, according to Huang.
The most common treatment is light-therapy boxes. Much brighter than your regular lamp, light therapy boxes simulate sunlight and help regulate the sleep cycle. The best models minimize UV light while still providing at least 10,000 lux of light that the patient gazes at. They have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but are nonetheless commonly prescribed by doctors, and have shown few to no side-effects. The boxes, however, can cost from $200 to $500, and usually are not covered by insurance.
In June 2006, the FDA approved the first drug to treat SAD, Wellbutrin XL, a bupropion drug that had been previously prescribed for general depression. Other prescription drugs used to treat depression, such as Zoloft and Prozac, have also been used to treat SAD, according to the American Family Physician.
Psychotherapy can also help alleviate the depression and moodiness associated with SAD.
“The best non-chemical anti-depressant is meaningful connection with other human beings,” Huang said. “The most important factor to deal with depression and/or SAD is to love ourselves and others.”