Sunshine For SAD Sufferers
As winter approaches and the days get shorter, millions of people once again develop the sadness and loss of energy that is characteristic of seasonal affective disorder. Find out what's behind this mysterious condition and what can be done about it.
For years, Merril suffered through what he calls the "murky mess" of
winters in Utah.
As the days grew shorter and clouds hid the sun for days or weeks at a time,
Merril found his appetite for carbohydrates increased, his ability to get work
done decreased, and his moods grew darker. "I'd fly off the handle at the
least provocation," he says. "By February, my students let me know I
was not fit to be around any more."
Out of desperation he'd head up into the mountains above the clouds and ski
in the sunshine. After an hour or two he'd start feeling better. He attributed
it to the change of scenery, getting himself out of the classroom and away from
the work routine.
But about 15 years ago, Merril discovered the real cure wasn't the scenery,
but the sunshine. His problem? A newly diagnosed condition called seasonal
Diagnosing Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, was first described in 1984 by Norman
Rosenthal, MD, medical director of Capital Clinical Research Associates and the
author of Winter Blues. Seasonal affective disorder is regarded as a
kind of major depression and has many of the same symptoms: loss of energy,
change in appetite, tendency to oversleep, difficulty concentrating, and
But unlike major depression, it occurs seasonally, usually beginning in
September or October and lasting through March or April. Someone who has
suffered these symptoms for two consecutive winters, but does not have symptoms
of depression during the spring and summer months, probably has seasonal
Human beings have probably struggled with seasonal affective disorder since
ancient times. It's no coincidence, says Rosenthal, that many cultures
celebrate major holidays around the shortest day of the year -- and that these
celebrations involve lighting candles.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, about 4% to 6% of
people may have seasonal affective disorder.
Symptoms and Causes
People in northern latitudes, where there are fewer hours of daylight,
suffer more than those in southern latitudes. Women -- especially between the
ages of 20 and 40 -- appear to be affected more frequently than men.
"My guess is that three times as many women suffer from SAD as men,"
says Dan Oren, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University
School of Medicine and a researcher with the Department of Veteran Affairs.
"We don't know why SAD is more prevalent among women, but it's a good guess
that hormones are partly responsible."
The exact cause of seasonal affective disorder is not yet understood, but
the role of the neurotransmitter serotonin is one of the "most
promising" areas of research, according to Rosenthal. The body uses
serotonin in manufacturing melatonin, the chemical that makes us sleepy.
Concentrations of serotonin drop to their lowest levels during the winter and
rise to their highest levels in summer and fall.
Researchers also believe there may be genetic factors, for seasonal
affective disorder has been observed to run in families.