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Get the treatment you need for seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Light therapy could help

This article was last updated on Jan. 24, 2023. 

The cold temperatures and short days of winter tend to keep us indoors, which may leave you feeling isolated, unmotivated and burnt out. If this describes you during the winter months, you may be experiencing seasonal depression, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What is seasonal depression, or SAD?

People with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) report feelings of depression only during the winter months. This could include loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, sluggishness, and in extreme cases, thoughts of suicide or death. With SAD, the short days and long nights of winter may also bring cravings for certain foods, headaches and sleep problems.

Experts estimate about five percent of the U.S. population experiences seasonal depression External Site.

Researchers aren’t clear exactly what causes SAD, but many factors may play a role, including genes and stress. What makes SAD unique is the link to sunlight. Researchers believe the reduced number of daylight hours during the winter months interrupts the body’s circadian rhythms, which help regulate the body’s internal clock, and let us know when it’s time to sleep and time to wake.

Yet other research has shown that people who are depressed have decreased levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that seems to be triggered by sunlight. The lack of serotonin may cause winter depression. The change in season can also disrupt the balance of the body's level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

The most difficult months for SAD sufferers are January and February, and younger people and women are at higher risk. This year, feelings of SAD may be intensified by surges in the pandemic.

According to Dr. Alan Whitters, behavioral health director at Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, “SAD is especially common in states at northern latitudes.  Common symptoms include weight gain and sleeping more. The first step is to talk with your doctor whether that be through a primary care appointment, virtual visit or behavioral health professional.”

Access mental health care through Doctor On Demand®.

If you have a tight schedule, are juggling kids, or live in areas where care isn't widely available, you may want to talk to a virtual doctor about your symptoms. Most Wellmark members have access to virtual mental health options through Doctor On Demand. Virtual doctors can help you with a variety of mental health issues, like anxiety, depression, stress, postpartum concerns and much more. 

How to ease symptoms

In addition to speaking with a health care provider, try these simple tips at home to ease mild SAD symptoms: 

  • Increase the amount of light in the home. Pull back the curtains, open the blinds, remove the screens and wash the windows.
  • Get outdoors. Sure, it’s cold, but bundling up and walking outdoors on sunny winter days can do wonders for the mood.
  • Wake up to a dawn stimulator. Instead of an alarm clock, a dawn stimulator uses lights that gradually brighten like the sun.
  • Do some self-care. Exercise regularly, eat healthy and maintain a regular sleep schedule.
  • Stay connected to loved ones. Stay socially active via phone calls, Zoom calls, and other ways to connect.

A light on the horizon

For many people, SAD symptoms improve with the use of light therapy External Site. With this treatment, a sun lamp mimics the light intensity from the outdoors. This simple, effective therapy helps the body regulate serotonin and melatonin levels.

sunlight therapy seasonal affective disorder treatment

A prescription is not necessary for a sun lamp, and they are available at many retail stores and online, with a variety of price points. Health insurance plans do not cover the cost, and sun lamps are not approved or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

To find the right light therapy device for you, talk to your doctor or therapist for a recommendation. There may be side effects to using light therapy if you have certain conditions, like bipolar disorder, glaucoma or cataracts. So be sure to talk to your doctor or therapist to be sure you are purchasing a lamp best suited to your needs.