Some of us may experience the “winter blues” during the winter months – feeling sad from shortening days, climbing into bed earlier, and resenting waking up on dark mornings.
The most common form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) occurs in winter, although some people do experience symptoms during spring and summer. SAD is often discussed in adults but rarely for children and adolescents who are not necessarily immune.
When experiencing SAD, a person may
- Withdraw socially and no longer enjoy things that used to be fun. It’s as if a person’s batteries have just run down.
- Crave comfort foods, including simple carbs such as pasta, bread, and sugar. With excess unhealthy calories and a lack of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, fatigue often sets in, leading to increased sleepiness and weight gain.
- Feel anxious, irritable, have trouble sleeping, or decreased appetite. These symptoms are more common with the spring/summer form of SAD.
No Known Cause
Researchers have not determined what causes SAD. Some evidence points to a disruption of a person’s “circadian rhythm” — the body’s natural cycle of sleeping and waking. As the days shorten, the decreasing amount of light can throw off the body’s natural clock, triggering depression. Sunlight also plays a role in the brain’s production of melatonin and serotonin. During winter, your body produces more melatonin (which encourages sleep) and less serotonin (which fights depression). Researchers do not know why some people are more susceptible to SAD than others.
In general, SAD is a better-recognized disorder in adults because so many children’s mental health disorders emerge over time. Diagnosing SAD in a child is not easy because determining the pattern of depression takes time. A doctor will typically attempt to determine whether a child is suffering from depression or anxiety first, then look at the pattern over time. The diagnosis of SAD is made only if a person meets the criteria for depression and if a seasonal pattern of symptoms has been present for at least 2 years.
In order to diagnose SAD, doctors need to perform a medical exam to rule out other possible causes of the symptoms. They may also administer questionnaires to determine mood and look for seasonal patterns.
Several effective treatments can help ease the symptoms of SAD, including:
- Opening the window shades in your home. Simply bringing more sunlight into your life can treat mild cases.
- Spending time outdoors every day, even on cloudy days.
- Exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet, one low in carbohydrates and high in vegetables, fruit, and whole grains.
- Using a “dawn simulator,” which gradually turns on the bedroom light, tricking the body into thinking it’s an earlier sunrise.
- Planning a mid-winter family vacation to a sunny climate.
- Light therapy – sitting in front of a strong light box or wearing light visors, filtered out UV rays. However, light therapy may have risks when used for children. Talk to your child’s doctor before considering this treatment option.
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