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SAD typically peaks during the winter months. Photo: Pikrepo/CC

Dr. Zinatelli recommends investing time in finding individualized treatment plans from professionals

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that manifests during fixed periods of the year. People with the disorder typically experience symptoms in the late fall and winter months, though some feel its effects in the spring and summer. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, two to three per cent of Canadians will have SAD in their lifetime, and up to 15 per cent will experience mild symptoms of the disorder.

Despite its prevalence, many Canadians are still unfamiliar with the illness. The Fulcrum spoke to Dr. Marna Zinatelli, an Ottawa-based psychologist, about SAD and the options available to those combatting it.

Through a phone interview, Dr. Zinatelli outlined the common symptoms of SAD. She said that the disorder is similar to major depression. Though symptoms vary between individuals, she highlighted low mood, fatigue, and a decrease in appetite and motivation as common effects.  

When asked about risk factors among people with SAD, Zinatelli first raised the discrepancy between male and female diagnoses. According to some research, women are nine times more likely than men to be diagnosed with SAD; however, Zinatelli questions if this statistic is due to differences between male and female socialization rather than true rates of illness. 

Populations living further from the equator are also at a higher risk of developing the disorder, a correlation that Zinatelli relates to humans’ circadian rhythm. A prevailing theory concerning the cause of SAD is that decreased sunlight in the fall and winter months disrupt individuals’ internal clocks, leading to a shift in daily routine and feelings of depression. 

Another risk factor outlined in contemporary research is that of poor melatonin production. As melatonin is produced while asleep and under darkness, Zinatelli hypothesized that the influence of bright screens or exterior light can decrease an individual’s capacity to create the hormone. During the day, melatonin allows for the production of serotonin (a mood-regulating hormone),  meaning that decreased production of melatonin at night can greatly impact one’s mental health.

To promote the proper creation of melatonin, Zinatelli encourages proper sleep hygiene. Limiting screen time before sleeping, darkening one’s bedroom or wearing a sleep mask, and creating a bedtime routine are all ways to promote healthier sleep, she said.

Though researchers do not know the exact causes of seasonal affective disorder, a growing body of research is being conducted. Dr. Zinatelli pointed to emerging studies that show a positive impact of lifestyle changes (namely diet, exercise, and sleep) in recovering from depressive disorders. A 2015 study published in Biological Psychiatry corroborates these claims, showing decreased memory and increased anxiety among mice eating an unhealthy, high-fat diet. 

In terms of treatment, there are multiple options for those struggling with seasonal affective disorder. Light treatment (where individuals use lamps that mimick summer sun) is a common form of therapy meant to restructure the body’s circadian rhythm. Prescriptions and talk therapy are also options to alleviate the symptoms of SAD.

Dr. Zinatelli’s concluding message is that those who are struggling with mental illness should remain patient with themselves and their treatment. Though some individuals can find solutions for their diagnoses quickly, she says that this does not diminish the experience of those who recover more slowly. She recommends that individuals take ownership of their healing, to invest time and effort into finding the right healthcare professionals, treatment plans, and habits that work for them.