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Facts about Seasonal Depression

written by: BettyHolt • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 3/4/2011

If your case of the "winter blues" begins in the fall and ends in the spring, you may have seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. A type of seasonal depression that affects women more than men, SAD is more common in people who live a long way from the equator.

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    Seasonal Affective Disorder

    Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include hopelessness, anxiety, loss of energy, a craving for carbohydrates, social withdrawal and oversleeping. Not every person will exhibit every symptom, however. Someone could have normal energy and extreme carbohydrate cravings, for example. The worst months for seasonal depression sufferers seem to be January and February. Although the majority of people experience SAD in the winter months, a small percentage experience summer-onset of the disorder. These people experience many of the same symptoms but have trouble sleeping, may have an increased sex drive and loss of appetite.

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    Facts About Seasonal Depression -- Causes

    Specific causes of seasonal depression are unknown, but your own body chemistry may play a part. You may experience a disruption in your body's internal clock, which normally lets you know when you should sleep and when you should be awake. The change of seasons can also disrupt the balance of the natural hormone melatonin, which affects both sleep and mood. You may want to consult your doctor about melatonin supplements. The brain chemical serotonin is reduced by a drop in sunlight, and low serotonin levels can lead to depression. Like other types of depression, people with seasonal depression tend to have relatives with the condition.

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    Facts About Seasonal Depression -- Treatments

    If your case of SAD is fairly mild, more exposure to sunlight can help. Even though the sun's rays are weaker in the winter, a long walk outside could be beneficial. Exercise alone helps symptoms of depression. Arranging your home or office where you can be near a window is another way of bringing more light into your life. If your symptoms are more severe, you might consider light therapy, called phototherapy. This method involves exposing yourself to a very bright light, usually a special form of fluorescent light, between 30 and 90 minutes per day during the winter months. No one understands exactly why this works, but it does seem to lessen symptoms. If you invest in a light box, seek the advice of your doctor or mental health provider about which kinds are most effective.

    Psychotherapy can be useful in dealing with seasonal affective disorder by helping you be aware of negative thought cycles and countering those with more positive or neutral thoughts. Some people find relief with antidepressants and only take them during the time of year they are affected by SAD.

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    Facts About Seasonal Depression -- Alternative Medicine

    The herb St. John's Wort has been used to treat depression, especially cases of mild to moderate depression. Since SAD may be due to a disruption in melatonin, supplementing with this natural hormone could be of help. SAM-e is a synthetic form of a natural chemical that occurs in the body. It has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat depression in the U.S., but is a prescription drug in Europe for that purpose. Omega-3 fatty acids have been used to relieve depressive symptoms. They are available as supplements, or found in the diet as cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel and herring, flaxseed, flaxseed oil and walnuts.

    Regular aerobic exercise may help alleviate depression. Mind-body therapies such as acupuncture, yoga, guided imagery, massage and meditation are ways some people find relief.