July 18, 2024

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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Treatment Options

4 min read

Many Americans have a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which causes mood changes during the colder, darker months. The goal of treatment is to improve your mood. You can often alleviate symptoms with an antidepressant, such as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). SSRIs that are used for SAD include Lexapro (escitalopram) and Zoloft (sertraline). Researchers are not completely sure of the exact cause of SAD or the mechanism by which these medications help SAD.

You can’t control seasonal changes, but hibernating during the fall and winter is not the solution. The best thing to do is exactly the opposite: Get more light, get out of bed, and get active. Light therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can also help.

Some people with SAD may need to see a healthcare provider, such as a mental health specialist. A psychiatrist can prescribe an SSRI, and a psychologist can oversee CBT. Read on to learn more about SAD, including the best medications to treat it.

Prescription medications have been shown to help people cope with SAD. It may take four to eight weeks for these medications to work. You might notice that other aspects, such as appetite, attention, and sleep, improve before your mood does.

These drugs carry risks of side effects, including suicidal thoughts and behavior in some children, adolescents, and young adults. They may not be the right treatment for everyone.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)

One medication option is an SSRI. These prescription antidepressants boost levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. This chemical naturally stabilizes mood.

Some of the most common SSRIs include:

  • Celexa (citalopram)
  • Lexapro
  • Paxil (paroxetine)
  • Prozac (fluoxetine)
  • Zoloft

Wellbutrin and Aplenzin (Bupropion)

Wellbutrin and Aplenzin (bupropion) are other types of antidepressants. These medications improve mood by increasing levels of three neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Research has shown that extended-release bupropion taken early in the fall before SAD sets in can reduce the recurrence of symptoms.

Vitamin D

Research has shown that many people with SAD often have a vitamin D deficiency. Symptoms that persist during the colder, darker months are often the result of a lack of sunlight. The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays are a rich source of vitamin D.

A healthcare provider may recommend taking an over-the-counter vitamin D supplement. There’s been mixed evidence to support the use of vitamin D in people with SAD.

A healthcare provider may advise light therapy and CBT to alleviate SAD symptoms. You might use one or both of these therapies in combination with medications. Light therapy specifically targets SAD, which occurs during the winter. CBT is generally used to treat depression.

Light Therapy

A daily dose of bright light, especially in the morning, has been shown to be an effective, mood-elevating therapy. Light therapy is one of the main treatments for people with SAD and can compensate for the lack of natural light people get during darker months.

When light hits the retina of the eye, it is converted into nerve impulses. These nerve impulses pass back to specialized regions of the brain involved in regulating emotions.

You’ll find any number of bright-light-emitting lamps and light boxes on the market for this purpose. Treatment involves 20 to 60 minutes of daily exposure to cool-white fluorescent light.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

CBT, or talk therapy, helps replace negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with positive ones. The cognitive part is recognizing that SAD isn’t a personal deficit. It’s part of your genetic makeup and your response to the seasons and light. You don’t have to blame yourself.

The behavioral part is taking time for yourself to do something you enjoy. This might be practicing yoga or grabbing lunch with a friend.

Some lifestyle changes may alleviate depression symptoms caused by SAD. These changes include:

  • Exercise: A regular workout routine can raise levels of “feel good” neurotransmitters in the brain, like dopamine. You might even consider combining two treatments in one by exercising while getting light therapy. Try taking a brisk walk on a sunny day.
  • Limit fast food and sweets: Reaching for sweet and starchy comfort foods might be tempting to improve your mood. You’ll get an immediate energy boost, but the feeling isn’t sustained. Eating too much sugar can even negatively affect depression symptoms. One study found an association between eating vegetables, nuts, and eggs and reduced depression risk.
  • Manage stress: Stress can be particularly high in people with SAD. Stress management techniques can help you cope with seasonal depression. Try practicing meditation, scheduling big projects and deadlines for the summer, and taking breaks to walk outside in the sun.

SAD strikes when there’s a shortage of natural light, usually during the fall and winter months. Soaking in sunlight on a bright fall or winter day may help lift people from their seasonal depression.

Natural light affects serotonin levels, and with natural light comes increased serotonin. Try bundling up and basking in nature’s brilliance. You’ll get a lot of light into your eyes this way.

A change of venue might also help: If possible, visiting a warmer place can help prevent SAD symptoms. It might be helpful to schedule a vacation in winter rather than summer.

SAD affects people during colder, darker months. There are ways to cope with the condition until the weather warms up. First-line treatment for SAD includes antidepressant medications plus light therapy, with CBT as an additional treatment.

You can also try exercising, spending time in natural light, or even taking a warm winter vacation. A healthcare provider or mental health specialist can help determine the best methods for you.


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