Seasonal affective disorder or S.A.D. – also known as the winter blues or winter depression – strikes many people in the short and low light days of fall and winter. Seasonal depression appears to be triggered by the reduced sunlight and low temperatures of the fall and winter seasons. The low light conditions appear to trigger chemical changes in the brain, although the exact mechanisms by which this happens are still under study. Seasonal affective disorder and other forms of depression are associated with low levels of vitamin D in the blood.

In the United States, seasonal affective disorder affects about 5% of adults, with as much as 20% of the population showing some signs of the condition, if not the full-fledged disorder. It also appears to affect four times as many women as men, and on average age of developing this disorder is about 23 years. However, seasonal affective disorder can affect people of any age.

Seasonal affective disorder symptoms

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are variable and include depression, fatigue, mood swings, a difficulty in focusing, body aches, sleeplessness, lethargy, and a craving for carbohydrates which can lead to weight gain. In severe cases, seasonal affective disorder can even lead to thoughts of suicide. These symptoms get more pronounced as the months get darker, and therefore, the farther away one lives from the equator, the more prolonged the symptoms.

How to treat seasonal affective disorder

Seasonal affective disorder treatment can take a number of forms. One of the main treatments for seasonal affective disorder is light therapy. Seasonal affective disorder light therapy – also known as phototherapy - consists of exposing sufferers to bright lights, especially fluorescent lights. This can prevent the occurrence of SAD in the first place, and can improve depression in people who suffer from it. The person should be ideally exposed to the bright light in the morning and the evening. For those who can afford to get away, temporarily moving to an area with bright light (such as a tropical location) can also work as treatment for seasonal affective disorder.

One can use commercially available light boxes for phototherapy. The light coming from a light box is thought to lift one's mood by triggering chemical changes in the brain. The light coming from a light box should be quite bright, about 25 times brighter than a normal light bulb. It is generally used for about 30 minutes a day. The light does not need to be from full spectrum bulbs, but brightness is important. However, light therapy for seasonal affective disorder is not without side effects. It can cause sleeplessness, eye strain, irritability and headaches.

You can buy light boxes over the counter without a prescription. Light boxes are available at drugstores, hardware stores and over the internet. A doctor can also prescribe a specific type of light box, and in fact you may need a doctor's prescription to get your light box covered by insurance.

People who suffer from seasonal affective disorder can also benefit from increased social interaction and support from their social network during the winter.

Antidepressant medicines can also be prescribed as treatment for seasonal affective disorder. These medicines are from the serotonin selective reuptake (SSRI) family. Some examples of SSRI drugs include Zoloft, Prozac, Celexa and Paxil. SSRI medication side effects include nausea, insomnia and diarrhea. Psychotherapy in conjunction with these medications can increase their effectiveness. However, for those with a tendency toward bipolar disorder, light therapy or antidepressants could trigger a manic episode.

Alternative treatments such as acupuncture may also be effective treatments for seasonal affective disorder. Acupuncture could be a good treatment for pregnant women who may be advised against antidepressant medication.