Seasonal Affective Disorder

We have all heard the lyrics of the song ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ from the rock band, the Byrds (1965), which goes, ‘to everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.’

By Samineh I Shaheem

Published: Sat 11 Dec 2010, 10:05 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 9:52 AM

While most of us are aware of seasonal changes and ‘turns’ that take place, even if in some locations we only have 1 or 2 seasons instead of 4, it might come as a surprise to you to know that there is a psychological disorder known as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), a type of depression that occurs roughly around the same time of the year, usually around the winter months, as our days get shorter and darker.

Dr Rosenthal, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University and researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), coined the term Seasonal Affective Disorder two decades ago. If it isn’t too severe, we tend to call this overall feeling of lack of energy, loss of enthusiasm, and inability to plan for the future, oversleeping, increased craving for foods high in carbohydrates, weight gain, difficulty concentrating, as Winter Blues. However for some people, its more like ‘Winter Blacks’ as the symptoms of SAD can be quite acute and long lasting, requiring some sort of medical intervention.

SAD seems to be more common in women than men and there are a number of contributing factors, including both a genetic predisposition as well as environmental influences. To begin with, SAD is linked to changes in the amount of daylight we are exposed to.

According to Dr. David Mrazek fro the Mayo clinic, ‘melatonin is a hormone that our brains produce during the hours of darkness. It is involved with regulation of sleep, body temperature and release of other hormones. As with any hormone, the amount produced is important. People with SAD produce too much melatonin. This disrupts our internal body clock leading to depressive symptoms.’ Therefore melatonin has a slowing effect on the nervous system and induces sleep and lower levels of energy.

Although there are conflicting reports about this however some claim that individuals from far northern Scandinavian countries have the toughest time with such depressive symptoms since they may only have a few hours of light during the winter months. What seems to be agreed upon, on the other hand, is that regular consumption of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids may prevent the disorder. Last year researchers reported that northerly countries where fish consumption is high, such as Iceland and Japan, reported lower rates of seasonal affective disorder.

Ironically, while many applaud the arrival of sunny summer months, there are a smaller number of people who suffer the opposite and are afflicted by SAD during the summer months, often experiencing agitation, loss of appetite, weight loss, withdrawing from family and friends, lowered self confidence, frustration, insomnia, confusion, and restlessness.

According to Dr Rosenthal, the cause may differ, as well. Seasonal depression in the winter seems linked to increases in the production of melatonin, triggered by the decrease in light. In the summer months however people seem to be more sensitive to increased daylight and heat and SAD in this case is more prevalent in hotter regions.

Thankfully, there are a number of steps you can take that may help reduce the effects of SAD, such as:

υ regular exposure to light

υ try to find time each day to get outside

υ traveling to warmer/cooler climates

υ sit near windows when you are inside

υ inquire about light therapy

υ decorate your home in light colours

υ stay connected to family and friends

υ read inspirational literature

υ major plans or projects should be left till the season passes

υ loose fitting clothes and keeping cool in the summer

υ wearing sunglasses

υ regular exercise or physical activity

υ good sleep hygiene

υ well-balanced diet

υ medication in the more sever cases might be required

As with any other health issue, please do not ignore the symptoms of SAD, seek medical help as soon as possible. The days between these seasons can seem endless and tedious however with a sense of awareness and some self help strategies, this too shall pass and a new season will be just around the corner.

Samineh I Shaheem is an author, an assistant professor of psychology, currently lecturing in Dubai, as well as a cross cultural consultant at the Human Relations Institute. She has appeared on numerous radio programs and conferences and has studied and worked in different parts of the world, including the United Sates of America, UK, Netherlands, and the UAE. Please forward your thoughts to

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