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Understanding seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

People with seasonal affective disorder feel tired and lethargic and may withdraw from friends and family. They may have less interest in activities that they usually enjoy.

seasonal affective disorderWith the winter months, some people might become a little sad. The days are shorter; we miss the sunlight, hot weather and sandals. It’s normal to feel sad about winter, but did you know there is an actual medical condition called SAD?

An estimated 2% to 3% of the general population suffers from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that seems to be related to the amount of sunlight that you are exposed to. An extreme form of the “winter blues,” SAD is worst for most people in the fall and winter. In rare cases, some people develop SAD during the late spring or early summer months. If you have episodes of depression that recur at the same time every year for more than 2 years, you may have SAD, and not just the occasional winter blues.

SAD is a real medical condition that can affect anyone, even people who are not already predisposed to depression. The condition is more common in women than in men. Most people who develop SAD start experiencing symptoms in their 30s. Most people with SAD live in northern climates where there are shorter days in the winter months. Their symptoms begin to lessen in the spring when the amount of sunlight increases each day.

According to, the sun is on average, up 3 minutes less per day during the winter months.

While the exact cause of SAD is unknown, researchers believe the condition may be related to the body’s internal clock, which regulates temperature and hormone production. Nerve centers in the brain control our daily moods and rhythms, and are stimulated by the amount of light that enters our eyes.

During the night and in periods of reduced light (as occurs in the winter), a gland in the brain produces a hormone called melatonin, which makes you feel drowsy. SAD may be related to increased levels of melatonin in the body. On dull winter days, people with the condition may have difficulty waking up, and may feel drowsy or “down” during the day.

Other research is looking at the role of serotonin in SAD. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (chemical in the brain) that helps to regulate mood and behaviour. Sunlight seems to have an effect on serotonin levels. Therefore, the shorter days and longer nights associated with the fall and winter season may cause decreased levels of serotonin.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

People with SAD feel tired and lethargic and may withdraw from friends and family. They may have less interest in activities that they usually enjoy. Other symptoms include the following:

  • inability to concentrate
  • sadness or despair
  • increased appetite, cravings for sweet and starchy foods, and weight gain (usually occurring in the winter months)
  • irritability
  • increased sleepiness
  • lack of energy
  • decreased interest in work and social activities

Many symptoms of SAD are similar to those of major depression. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing some or all of the symptoms listed above.If you feel like you may be experiencing symptoms of SAD, here are some tips that may help you feel better:

Daily exercise
Regular physical activity helps fight fatigue and depression, especially if you exercise during the day or near light sources. Keep in mind that outdoor light, even when the sky is overcast, can help ease symptoms of SAD and prevent episodes of depression. Find an outdoor hobby that you can enjoy throughout the winter months such as skating, skiing, or walking.

Seek the sun
Even weak sunlight and light reflected off snow can increase your exposure to light and help ease symptoms of SAD. Arrange your home and office to maximize your exposure to light, and look for sunlit windows for reading, eating, or working.

Take a holiday
Book a trip somewhere warm with lots of sunlight. An extra dose of vitamin “sea” may help shake the blues.

Be aware of your moods
Self-awareness can alleviate some of the feelings of distress during these seasons. Be aware of your moods and energy level and attempt to maintain perspective. Nobody knows you like you know yourself. If you feel like you are experiencing any of these symptoms, be sure to talk to someone about it. A friend, family member or a health professional. Remember that SAD is an actual medical condition, and you are not alone.

Beyond Rewards Inc

Human Resources and Risk Management Consultants and Training Provider at Beyond Rewards Inc
Beyond Rewards is a boutique firm offering a full suite of Human Resource, Safety, Workplace investigations, Accessibility Standards and Risk Management solutions, online training programs and customized face to face training for our clients. Several exceptional expert consultants led by Lynne Bard, HBa, CHRP, CES, President/Senior Consultant,will be blogging regularly on First Reference Talks on behalf of Beyond Rewards Inc. Read more here.

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