Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or seasonal depression, is a mood disorder affecting many people during fall and winter when days are shorter and with scarce sunlight. An estimated 5% of the population in the United States experience SAD, with women being more likely to be affected than men. Although it is more common in areas with less sunlight, it can affect people in any region.
The Symptoms of SAD
The most common symptoms of SAD include sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness, as well as a loss of interest in activities they once found enjoyable. Other common feelings include low energy, changes in appetite or weight, and difficulty concentrating. SAD can also cause physical symptoms such as headaches, body aches, and digestive problems.
Dr. John La Puma, an internist, author, culinary medicine, and natural medicine expert, developed a quiz at sadquiz.com, which helps determine whether you are at significant risk for sad seasonal affective disorder.
SAD can cause various sleep disorders due to hormonal imbalances. These may include insomnia and hyposomnia. Individuals with SAD frequently receive fewer hours of rest, especially during the darker winter months. In such instances, napping may not provide relief from extended periods of tiredness.
The Causes of SAD
The exact causes of SAD are not fully understood, but experts believe it is related to changes in the amount of sunlight that a person receives during the fall and winter months. The decrease in sunlight can disrupt the body's internal clock, or circadian rhythm, leading to a drop in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood.
Sleep disorders due to hormonal imbalances may cause SAD. These may include insomnia and hyposomnia. The lack of sunlight disrupts melatonin production, resulting in general restlessness and sleep disturbances. Individuals with SAD may experience excessive tiredness or lethargy during the daytime and experience fickle mood changes as a result.
Changes in Brain Chemistry
The decrease in sunlight can also lead to an increase in melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep. These changes in neurotransmitters and hormones can contribute to the development of SAD. Specifically, the imbalances in the brain’s neurotransmitters could result in depressive disorders and activate SAD symptoms.
SAD involves multiple treatment options that help regulate the body's internal clock and improve mood. These solutions fall into categories such as light therapy, psychotherapy, and lifestyle changes. Choosing the proper treatment largely depends on an individual's medical history and the severity of their symptoms.
One of the primary treatments for SAD is light therapy. Light therapy involves exposure to bright light for a certain period of time each day, usually in the morning. The light box emits a bright, white light that mimics natural sunlight.
The light is not harmful to the skin or eyes, but applying a lightbox tested and approved for treating SAD is critical. Dr. La Puma suggests “buying a bright light that you wake up to and read for 30 minutes before you start your day is a great way to improve symptoms.”
Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a type of talk therapy that helps people with SAD identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that may be contributing to their depression. Specialists may apply CBT to help people develop coping skills to deal with the symptoms of SAD. Medications, such as antidepressants, may also be used to treat SAD.
In addition to these treatments, several lifestyle changes can help alleviate the symptoms of SAD. There are some simple but effective tips for managing SAD symptoms.
Get outside. Even on cloudy days, being outdoors and getting natural light can help improve mood. Take a walk or sit outside for a few minutes each day.
Exercise. Exercise is known to improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression. Even 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day can help alleviate the symptoms of SAD.
Eat a balanced diet.: Eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help improve overall health and mood.
Practice good sleep habits. Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, avoiding screens before bedtime, and creating a relaxing bedtime routine can help improve sleep.
Socialize. Spending time with friends and family can help improve mood and reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of SAD, it is essential for them to seek help from a healthcare professional. SAD is a treatable condition, and with the proper treatment, most people can find relief from their symptoms.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
Golden, R. N., Gaynes, B. N., Ekstrom, R. D., Hamer, R. M., Jacobsen, F. M., Suppes, T., Wisner, K. L., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2005). The efficacy of light therapy in the treatment of mood disorders: A review and meta-analysis of the evidence. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162(4), 656-662. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.162.4.656
Melrose, S. (2015). Seasonal affective disorder: An overview of assessment and treatment approaches. Depression Research and Treatment, 2015, 1-6. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/178564
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Text or call 988.