Seasonal Affective Disorder Impacts 10 Million Americans. Are You One of Them?

Image source: Keyang Zheng on Unsplash

By Madeleine O’Keefe

On Sunday, November 3, most of America traveled back in time — by an hour. When daylight saving time ends and we set back our clocks, it signals the transition into late fall and winter.

With this changing of the clocks, daylight ends earlier. When this happens, some people may experience emerging feelings of sadness and sluggishness, and fluctuations in weight. If you suffer from these symptoms, you may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression related to changes in the seasons. SAD affects an estimated 10 million Americans, with women four times more likely to be diagnosed with it than men. Fortunately, there are treatments available that have proven effective in treating the disorder.

How does one distinguish between SAD and ordinary sadness? What are the possible treatments? And what do scientists know about the underlying causes of the disorder? For answers to some of those questions, BU Today talked to Sanford Auerbach, a School of Medicine associate professor of neurology and psychiatry and director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Boston Medical Center.

BU Today: What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

What are the symptoms?

The flip side of it is that the opposite happens in the shorter months, like spring and early summer, where people will perhaps sleep a little less, are maybe more energetic, maybe more active, maybe even in some cases a little more “hypomanic,” a little on the manic side.

From a technical perspective, it’s not just a matter of being depressed in the winter months. It’s also being manic, if you will, in the longer days. So basically, it’s a disorder of mood that seems to be linked to the seasons.

How do you recognize that you are suffering from SAD and not something else?

How many people suffer from SAD? Are certain individuals more at risk than others?

Image credit: Charlota Blunarova on Unsplash

What are the treatment options for people with SAD?

The other option is to treat it like depression. A lot of things that have been shown to be effective for depression are effective for SAD, like the usual sort of antidepressants.

Are there ways to prevent SAD or mitigate its symptoms?

What do doctors and scientists still not know about SAD?

People are also trying to figure out, is it the light intensity? A few people have adjusted light gradually, like a sunrise — is that more effective or less effective?

What about the genetics of it? How can you predict who’s at a greater risk than others for this? One of the troubles of the light therapy is it varies a little bit from person to person, from researcher to researcher. The idea is to sit in front of the light for 30 to 60 minutes, but that requires some lifestyle changes and a time commitment.

What do you hope for in the near future regarding SAD research?

Those seeking confidential mental health counseling can contact Student Health Services Behavioral Medicine, the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, the Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders, the Samaritans of Boston suicide hotline, and BU’s Faculty & Staff Assistance office. Follow Madeleine O’Keefe on Twitter at @OKeefeMadeleine.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and was originally posted on BU Today.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter @BU Experts. Follow Sanford Auerbach @sanfordauerbach on Twitter . For research news and updates from BU’s School of Medicine follow @BUMedicine.

Cutting-edge research and commentary out of Boston University, home to Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners and Guggenheim Scholars. Find an expert: bu.edu/experts

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