Seasonal Affective Disorder and light therapy

Temperatures are dropping, daylight hours are decreasing, and the holiday season is upon us. The Michigan winter is here!

For many people, shorter and darker days mean an increase in depression symptoms. For some, these symptoms result in Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that occurs at the same time each year, usually beginning in the late fall to early winter months and ending in the spring. No one knows exactly what causes SAD, but it may be related to the fewer hours of daylight during the autumn and winter, which can upset levels of chemicals and hormones in the brain that affect mood and sleep patterns.

What are the symptoms?

• Low mood for most of the day
• Fatigue
• Increased sleep
• Increased appetite
• Weight gain
• Irritability
• Interpersonal difficulties
• A heavy, leaden feeling in the arms and legs
• In extreme cases, suicidal thoughts

What can be done to improve SAD symptoms?

• Live and work in bright environments when possible
• Plan a daily outdoor activity
• Sit near windows when inside
• Exercise daily
• Eat a well-balanced diet
• Practice relaxation and stress management
• Follow a consistent sleep routine
• Seek professional counseling
• Take antidepressant medication therapy when indicated for Major Depressive Disorder
• Use a sunlight-simulating electronic device (light therapy)

What is light therapy?

Research has shown that exposure to bright artificial light using a special light box can improve symptoms in two out of three cases of SAD. This light is at least 10 times stronger than normal light bulbs, is very similar to natural daylight, and won’t harm the eyes. Read more about light therapy, including criteria to consider for choosing a light box here.

This information has been brought to you by the M-DOCC program, which is available to help manage your patients with SAD or any other form of depression. M-DOCC is a unique, telephone-based collaborative care program for depression management that complements care provided by a patient’s physician. Care managers are experienced mental health social workers who work on behalf of the referring clinician and provide direct feedback to the patient’s treating team.

Download a printable factsheet about S.A.D. and light therapy.