Seasonal Affective Disorder

Fibromyalgia syndrome is often a debilitating illness. It is associated with a number of symptoms, ranging from widespread pain to chronic fatigue, and it can really take its toll on both your physical and mental wellbeing. To top this off, many fibromyalgia sufferers are also at risk for other illnesses, such as seasonal affective disorder. Seasonal affective disorder onsets during the fall and winter months, and can affect your mood, sleep schedule, and energy levels. Unfortunately, it can also make your fibromyalgia symptoms worse.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder that causes symptoms of depression and fatigue. A type of major depression, seasonal affective disorder is linked to the changing seasons. It typically onsets during the fall months and continues throughout the winter season. Symptoms only go away with the change of seasons during the springtime. Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder can range from mild to severe and, in some cases, the illness can become debilitating.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder is the result of the change in daylight hours during the fall and winter months. Your body operates according to the circadian rhythm, an internal clock that is based on the rise and fall of the sun. During the winter months, when there are fewer hours of sunlight, your internal clock can easily be thrown off. This makes it more difficult for your body to carry out its daily tasks.

Seasonal affective disorder is also linked with a chemical imbalance that results from the decrease in daylight hours. Melatonin, a brain chemical that plays a role in determining mood, is produced in greater quantities when it is dark outside. This means that more melatonin is produced during the fall and winter. An increase in this hormone can cause symptoms of depression.

Who is Affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Anyone can be affected by SAD. In fact, between 10% and 20% of Americans are thought to have some type of seasonal affective disorder. However, the illness is more common amongst women (70% to 80% of all SAD patients are female) and typically begins in the 20s or 30s. Seasonal affective disorder is more likely to occur in the Northern Hemisphere. 50% of seasonal affective disorder sufferers have a history of psychiatric illness in their immediate family.

What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The symptoms of SAD can be mild or severe. The most common symptoms include:


  • decreased energy
  • fatigue
  • sleep disorders, particularly excessive sleeping
  • cravings for carbohydrates and sugary foods
  • weight gain
  • irritability
  • depression
  • loss of libido


Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder
About 10% of seasonal affective disorder sufferers also experience symptoms of reverse seasonal affective disorder. Reverse seasonal affective disorder, or summer seasonal affective disorder, occurs during the spring and summer months, instead of during the winter months. It causes similar symptoms, including depression and fatigue. However, it is also characterized by weight loss and decreased appetite. It is possible to suffer from both seasonal affective disorder and reverse seasonal affective disorder in the same year.


Seasonal Affective Disorder and Fibromyalgia

If you are battling fibromyalgia, it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. This is because fibromyalgia sufferers appear to be at greater risk for developing the disorder than those who do not suffer from the syndrome. In fact, more than 50% of fibromyalgia sufferers report symptoms of SAD during the winter months. This can also complicate fibromyalgia, causing:


  • increased muscle stiffness
  • increased anxiety
  • disturbed sleep


Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatments

Luckily, there are a number of treatments that have been proven to be very effective in reducing the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. These treatments are often used concurrently, to provide the best results.

Light Therapy
Light therapy is the first line of treatment for seasonal affective disorder. It uses bright white fluorescent lights to help stop the production of melatonin in the brain, thus relieving symptoms of depression. Seasonal affective disorder light therapy involves sitting in front of a light box (a box filled with light bulbs) for 30 to 60 minutes everyday. While you are sitting in front of the light box, you can carry on with other activities, such as reading, knitting, or sewing. Between 50% and 80% of patients using light therapy experience dramatic improvement in their symptoms.

Antidepressants can also help to significantly reduce the depression and anxiety caused by seasonal affective disorder. SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are commonly employed to help alleviate the mood disorder without exacerbating fatigue or weight gain. Antidepressants often prescribed for seasonal affective disorder include Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft.


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