OPINION: As Seasons Change, Be on the Lookout for Signs of Seasonal Depression

Nov. 4—While some may feel relief at the idea of seasonal change, many others dread the shorter days and the potential to feel blue during the colder months. While it's typical to favor one season over another, for some, the fall and winter months can trigger feelings of sadness and a mental health condition known as seasonal depression.

Seasonal depression, while clinically known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a type of depression characterized by its recurrent seasonal pattern with symptoms that last around four to five months each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, or NIMH.

In most cases, those who experience SAD will have symptoms starting in the late fall or early winter, typically ending at the start of spring or summer, when sunshine is more plentiful. According to the NIMH, 15 million Americans are affected by SAD each year, which can people as early as age 13. SAD occurs more frequently in women than men and can be more prevalent in those with major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder. But many people impacted by SAD don't seek clinical diagnoses and treatment. While it's not fully understood what causes SAD, research indicates that those who experience this type of depression may have a vitamin D deficiency, which can impact mood and emotion. With less sunlight in the winter, people with this deficiency may be at risk of developing or experiencing SAD. Those experiencing SAD may also produce more melatonin than the average person, causing increased sleepiness, which can lead to disturbed sleep patterns, changes in mood and heightened feelings of depression due to a dysfunctional sleep-wake cycle.

Signs and symptoms of SAD can include feeling depressed most of the day for a portion of the year, oversleeping, overeating, social withdrawal, difficulty concentrating and lower energy levels. Luckily, SAD can be diagnosed by a health care provider, including your primary care provider.

The provider will look at how frequently a patient experiences bouts of depression before treatment is assessed. One treatment often recommended for SAD is light therapy, where patients expose themselves to artificial light (10,000 lux) for 45 minutes a day, usually first thing in the morning, every day until spring. These light boxes are brighter than outdoor light, without harmful rays. Talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy may also be recommended to combat SAD. The FDA has also approved antidepressants to prevent the occurrence of SAD or to eliminate the disorder. Vitamin D supplements may also be recommended. If you're experiencing symptoms of SAD, increase your intake of vitamin D and contact your health care provider. With diagnosis and treatment, you can help to make fall and winter happy times for you and your family.