ADHD and SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)

Terry Matlen, ACSW Health Guide
  • According to Wikopedia, "Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression, is a mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter or, less frequently, in the summer, repeatedly, year after year." The US National Library of Medicine notes that "some people experience a serious mood change when the seasons change. They may sleep too much, have little energy, and crave sweets and starchy foods. They may also feel depressed. Though symptoms can be severe, they usually clear up."


    People with SAD usually experience symptoms in early fall which then begin to subside in the spring, though some begin to slump even as early as August. Most don't bounce back until early May. People with SAD experience mild symptoms of depression and rarely need hospitalization or drastic interventions. Besides the typical symptoms, people also often complain of a feeling of hopelessness, lethargy, decreased sexual interest, social withdrawal and other related issues often seen with depression.

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    The current course of treatment for those with SAD where symptoms are interfering with quality of life, is light therapy. Some doctors will also prescribe anti-depressants in addition to light therapy.


    Light Therapy


    Light therapy, the choice of treatment for SAD since the early 1980s, consists of using bright white florescent light, typically via a light box or lamp. Light therapy requires very bright light that, produces 10,000-lux. This is approximately 20 times brighter than normal room lighting. Patients are instructed to sit near the light for a short period each day, typically in the morning, during the fall/winter months. Studies show between 50% and 80% of users experience complete remission of symptoms, though treatment will typically need to be continued each season in order to continue to cover SAD symptoms.


    SAD and ADHD

    Recent studies are now showing a link between SAD and ADHD. However, not all people with SAD will have ADHD. Stephen Lurie, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of Family Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, has studied SAD extensively and notes, "...if you have ADHD and you feel worse in the winter, don't just assume it's your ADHD getting worse. It could actually be SAD - and you should see your doctor because ADHD and SAD are treated entirely differently."

    Dr. Lurie also states that although SAD has only been studied in adults, parents of children with ADHD should be sensitive to seasonal patterns of behavior and report any changes to a doctor.


    Women with ADHD have been found to be more at risk of suffering from SAD than non-ADHD women. These findings were revealed at the 2002 meeting of the CanadianPsychiatric Association in Banff, Alberta, duringa session titled "New Insights Into Seasonal Depression." 


    While running a SAD clinic, Robert Levitan,M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at the Universityof Toronto, found that a numberof his SAD patients also had ADHD. Suspecting that theremight be some connection between the two disorders, he thenjoined forces with colleagues at an adult ADHD clinic to runa study to see whether he could confirm his suspicion.To find out if his suspicions were correct, he gave a questionnaire to 130 ADHD patients at the clinicto determine whether they might also have SAD and found that the incidenceof SAD in this group turned out to be four times higher thanone would expect in the general population, suggesting thatSAD may have a link with ADHD.


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    Dr. Levitan noted that both ADHD patients and SAD patients are "very much tied to theirenvironment"-that is, very sensitive to it. Researchers have pointed out that if a woman has both ADHDand SAD, then perhaps light therapy might be able to suppress ADHD *and* SAD symptoms. Further research will need to be conducted.


    In the meantime, if you have ADHD and suffer from SAD, it would be prudent to discuss treatment options with your health care provider.

Published On: October 03, 2008