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How is seasonal affective disorder (SAD) treated?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

There are several treatment options that may help reduce your symptoms. Doctors may prescribe medications, most commonly antidepressants like bupropion, paroxetine, sertaline, fluoxetine and venlafaxine, which work to block the chemical imbalances that cause the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Another treatment option may be psychotherapy, which may help to keep your mood positive and your behaviors from making you feel worse. Therapy will also teach you ways to cope with symptoms in a healthy manner. Light therapy, since most cases of SAD can be attributed to a lack of sunlight, appears to be beneficial and has few side effects. While its merits are still under review, a light therapy box that mimics sunlight seems to be able to cause a change in brain chemicals and mood.

Treatments for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) include phototherapy and antidepressant medication. Sufferers may notice a decrease in their symptoms by adopting healthy eating habits and adhering to a regular sleep schedule. Exercising outside may prove especially helpful for two reasons -- release of endorphins and increased exposure to sunlight.

Phototherapy involves exposure to full spectrum lighting for one to two hours per day, usually in the morning. Light boxes and visors provide this kind of exposure. Alternatively, dawn simulators initially provide low levels of light and increase the levels throughout the morning -- mimicking light exposure experienced in the early morning hours as the sun rises. Therapeutic levels of light are measured in a unit of illumination termed, the lux. The minimum effective dose for treating SAD is around 2,500 lux although some studies suggest certain patients may achieve beneficial effects from as little as 100 lux. Antidepressant medications such as sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), citalopram (Celexa) and fluoxetine (Prozac) may be effective in alleviating the symptoms of SAD and are often times used in conjunction with light therapy.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.