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Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that occurs during the same season each year. Experts aren’t sure what causes SAD, but believe it is related to a lack of sunlight. That lack of light changes your “biological clock,” which controls your sleep-wake pattern and other circadian rhythms — causing problems with serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood.

With SAD, you may: feel sad, grumpy, moody or anxious; lose interest in your usual activities; sleep more but still feel tired; have trouble concentrating.

It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between SAD and other types of depression because many of the symptoms are the same. To diagnose SAD, your doctor will ask if: you have been depressed during the same season and have gotten better when the seasons changed; you have symptoms that often occur with SAD, such as being very hungry (especially craving carbohydrates), gaining weight and sleeping more than usual; a close relative like a parent, brother or sister has had SAD.

Light therapy is the main treatment for SAD. Medicines and counseling may also help. Experts think light therapy works by resetting your biological clock. It helps most people who have SAD, and it’s easy to use. Here are some ideas of what works and how: 1) Bright light treatment — you place the light box at a certain distance from you on a desk or table. Then you sit in front of it while you read, eat breakfast or work at a computer. 2) Dawn simulation — a dim light goes on in the morning while you sleep; it gets brighter over time, like a sunrise.

You may start to feel better within a week or so after you start light therapy. But you need to stay with it and use it every day until the season changes. If you don’t, your depression could come back.

Antidepressant medicines may help people who have SAD. They may be used alone or with light therapy. If your doctor prescribes an antidepressant, be sure you take it the way you’re told to. Do not stop taking it suddenly. When you are ready to stop, your doctor can help you slowly reduce the dose to prevent problems. Counseling may also help. Some types of counseling, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy, can help you learn more about SAD — how to manage your symptoms and how to help prevent future episodes.

Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Getting more sunlight may help, too. Try to get outside to exercise when the sun is shining.

Most importantly, if you feel you have SAD, know it is real and you are not alone. There is help to get you through the gloomy months.

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Ron Larsen, M.D., is the medical director for Optum Idaho.


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