Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also referred to as the “winter blues” in its milder form, impacts roughly half a million individuals each winter, according to Mental Health America. This disorder makes its presence during the months of September through April, but peaks during the winter months of December, January, and February.
One of the hallmark signs of seasonal affective disorder is winter sleep disturbances. Among feedback from nearly 300 SAD patients, complaints of excessive oversleeping, termed hypersomnia, were made by 80 percent of the respondents, according to a study by researchers at Brigham’s and Women’s Hospital.
Aside from winter sleep hypersomnia, other symptoms of SAD include:
More women than men suffer from SAD; three fourths (or 3 out of 4) of SAD sufferers are women. The disorder most often strikes individuals ranging from 18 to 30 years of age. As might be expected, in the United States, SAD is more prevalent in northern states than southern states. In Florida, the incidence rate is 1.4 percent compared to 9.7 percent in New Hampshire, reports the New York Times. The milder form of SAD, the “winter blues” may affect even more people.
There are two main schools of thought on the causes of SAD. First, the light variation that occurs with the seasons — and the fact that the days are shorter in the winter — are thought to causes a shift in our circadian rhythm, or our biological internal clocks, if you will. Secondly, melatonin — which is a sleep-related hormone — has been linked to SAD. Because melatonin may introduce symptoms of depression, this hormone, when it’s secreted at higher levels in the longer days of darkness at night, can cause some people to experience symptoms of SAD.
Fortunately, there are a variety of treatment methods for the winter sleep disturbances and other unwelcome symptoms of SAD. That is, you don’t have to wait until for the spring or summer months to start sleeping normally again and feel better overall. For many people, a simple treatment of light therapy with either direct sunlight or bright light helps. Light therapy boxes, dusk-to-dawn simulators, and light-programmed alarm clocks are all commercially available products to help with the symptoms of sad. But light therapy doesn’t have to cost, because Mother Nature is free. Just taking regular walks in the winter sunlight can help.
“Bright light in the early morning is a powerful, fast and effective treatment for seasonal depression,” said Dr. Rosenthal, Georgetown Medical School professor of clinical psychiatry and author of “Winter Blues”. “Light is a nutrient of sorts for these patients,” Dr. Rosenthal says.
Yet, light therapy isn’t the only way to treat SAD. If light therapy doesn’t help to improve the symptoms of SAD, cognitive-behavioral therapy, melatonin hormone, antidepressant medication, and ionized air are other possible therapies that may work for you.
For the majority of people, the symptoms of SAD disorders, like winter sleep disturbances, are minor and don’t impact their daily lives. But for those whose symptoms are more severe, we encourage you to see your physician.
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