While almost everyone wishes that summer would come just a little bit sooner, for some individuals, the wintertime presents its own set of health challenges.
It has been estimated that roughly two or three out of every hundred people suffer from winter depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder. Seasonal Affective Disorder (appropriately termed SAD) is much more than a bout of the winter blues; in fact, SAD expert Dr. Kelly Rohan explains that, at the core of the illness, is a clinical form of depression.
In a research paper written by Dr. Rohan and recently published by the American Psychology Association (APA), she shares key information that is helpful to be aware of as university students delve headfirst into January and February, which are typically considered to be the dreariest, darkest and coldest months of winter.
Unlike an ordinary aversion to winter, people suffering from SAD are living with a distinctive disorder that requires treatment. Though there remains much to be known about SAD, psychologists and researchers agree that exposure to light is a contributing factor.
In her APA feature, Dr. Rohan describes SAD as being “a regular seasonal pattern of major depressive episodes during the fall and winter months with periods of full improvement in the spring and summer.”
For those living in northern climates far from the equator, the fall and winter months mean less readily available exposure to sunlight as the days grow shorter.
Although the precise cause of SAD is unknown, researchers suspect that the decreased exposure to light from October through until April affects the body’s ability to function and internal clock, also known as circadian rhythm.
In addition, it has been suggested that the levels of melatonin in the body may play an influential role.
The disorder itself is more predominant among women than men. For those studying at college and university, it is significant to note that SAD also tends to first occur among young adults in their twenties. The average age for the onset of illness is 23.
Symptoms associated with SAD include trouble concentrating, fatigue, sadness, anxiety, a loss of interest or pleasure in activities one normally enjoys, withdrawal from friends and family members, a great change in sleep length, headaches, irritability, slight weight gain, and a change in appetite. Often, those diagnosed with the disorder begin experiencing a craving for starches and sugary foods.
Like Dr. Rohan, those studying SAD are hoping to learn more about effective treatment options. At this time, light therapy has proven successful. According to Dr. Rohan’s APA feature, light therapy is defined as “daily exposure to a bright artificial light during the symptomatic months.”
Essentially, light therapy seeks to combat SAD by emitting a controlled amount of either fluorescent or full spectrum light under the supervision and guidance of a health provider. The amount of light required varies from person to person, so undergoing scheduled treatments under the care of a trained professional is key.
In terms of prevention, regular exposure to bright light, a visit to a sunny location, and a supportive network of friends and family have also been documented as pre-emptive strategies for combating SAD.