Seasonal Affective Disorder is more common closest to the poles and affects individuals during the fall and winter months when sunlight is scarce. Typical symptoms of SAD include depression, lack of energy, increased need for sleep and weight gain due to increased cravings for sweets or starchy foods.
The root of SAD lies in the imbalance of certain chemicals and hormones, namely sertonin and melatonin. Serotonin regulates appetite for carbohydrate rich foods, which is why someone with SAD gravitates towards bread and mom's homemade cookies. The sleep chemical melatonin affects mood and energy levels. The human body needs more exposure to sunlight or light infused with vitamin D to regulate the secretion of serotonin and melatonin.
A study done at the University of Minnesota by Dr. Greg Plotnikoff looked at 150 individuals at a hospital during the wintertime, all complaining of muscles aches and bone pains.
Many of these patients were given Motrin or a prescription strength anti-inflammatory drug because the doctors were not able to find a specific diagnosis. Upon examination, it was evident that 93 percent of the patients complaining of bone and muscle pain were suffering for vitamin D deficiency - a potential cause of SAD.
Interestingly enough, SAD is more common in women. One female St. Olaf student with SAD (who wishes to remain anonymous) explains how it affects her life. "I noticed during my sophomore year of high school that on cloudy days and during winter months I would feel helpless, pessimistic and lethargic. I would definitely eat more sweets, and I would sleep more as opposed to doing other activities," she said.
So how does someone diagnosed with SAD cope with the symptoms and still lead a fulfilling life both socially and academically? "I currently take anti-depressants that help with the symptoms, but also just knowing that I have it [SAD] and that others are affected by it too helps me cope with it," the previously mentioned St. Olaf student said.
The most common form of treatment for SAD is a light box, a special full-spectrum lamp. Exposure to light from the lamp everyday, usually during the morning or evening, will decrease the symptoms of SAD. The only drawback to purchasing a light box is that many of the bulbs that are used in light boxes produce imitation sunlight and consequently cost over $100.
The best solution is to spend time in the sun to absorb vitamin D. Exposure to sunlight through a window, however, does not help those with SAD because the glass absorbs vitamin D rays.
The best resource for St. Olaf students who feel like they might have SAD is to go the Counseling Center and ask to speak with a psychologist who will help students decide on an appropriate treatment plan.