As autumn turns to winter and the days become shorter, do you find yourself suffering from symptoms of depression that mysteriously seem to disappear once the days have become longer? Do you feel like you would just like to hibernate until spring? If so, you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is estimated to affect around seven percent of the population, though the number can be higher, particularly among those who live greater than 30 degrees north or south of the equator.

Symptoms appear slowly as the autumn begins, and build up as the winter progresses. These symptoms include:

  • Low energy
  • Tiredness
  • Trouble getting up in the morning
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased appetite, particularly for carbohydrates
  • Increased weight gain
  • Increased feelings of depression
  • Decreased sex drive

The more darkness the brain’s pineal gland receives, the more the hormone melatonin is produced. Melatonin is responsible for helping regulate the body’s hormones and maintaining its circadian rhythm. It particularly affects hormones produced by the pituitary gland, which is the main regulator of the entire endocrine system, including the thyroid gland, the gland responsible for producing the energy regulating hormones cortisol and adrenaline.

Melatonin is called the “sleep hormone,” as the pineal gland produces it when it gets dark to lower our body temperature and induce us to sleep, but as soon as sunlight hits our eyes in the morning the melatonin switch is turned off and is replaced by a surge in serotonin, which wakes us up and provides us with feelings of happiness and calm.

Though SAD can mimic the symptoms of depression, they are two different things. The symptoms of depression usually include insomnia and decreased appetite, while the opposite is the case in those with SAD. SAD also tends to occur primarily in the autumn and winter, whereas depression is experienced year-round.

If you have SAD, there are a number of treatments that can help ease your symptoms. These include light therapy, medication and/or timed melatonin supplementation.

Light therapy involves regular sessions of sitting before a bright white “full-spectrum” lightbox from 30 to 60 minutes. Studies have shown that 92 percent of those suffering from SAD experienced relief from their symptoms after this therapy.

The administration of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) has also proved to be helpful to some, with an effectiveness rate of 67 percent.

Supplementation with melatonin, administered at particular times of day, has also been shown to be effective in some cases, as it re-synchronizes the person’s circadian rhythms, affecting the timely release of the body’s other metabolic hormones.

So don’t suffer in silence! Consult with your health care provider if you feel you have symptoms of SAD, as effective treatment is easily available.