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SAD- A Guide to Seasonal Affective Disorder

SAD- A Guide to Seasonal Affective Disorder
Sailaxmi Chennuru

When winter arrives, for some comes the winter blues. The transition from sunny and warm to cold weather can make people experience the winter blues. People may feel sluggish and gloomy and have difficulty focusing.  

These symptoms are temporary for many and can be managed by following simple lifestyle changes. But for others, the fall and winter bring on a severe type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).  

SAD is much more than the winter blues. About 5% of the US population experience seasonal affective disorder every year. SAD or seasonal depression can interfere with the ability to function daily, and may impact everything from relationships to work and more.  

Despite the seriousness of the condition, it is highly treatable by adopting various techniques and seeking proper medical help.  

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?  

Seasonal affective disorder, also called seasonal depression, is a type of depression that happens when seasonal changes occur. Usually, symptoms of SAD begin in the fall, continue through the winter months, and subside in spring or early summer. A less common form of seasonal depression can happen in the summer, which begins in late spring or early summer and ends in fall.  

What Causes Seasonal Depression?  

The exact cause of seasonal affective disorder remains unknown. Some factors that may contribute to seasonal depression include:  

  • Biological clock change: The decreased level of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt the body’s internal clock, which regulates mood, sleep, and hormones. The body may not adjust to the changes in daylight length leading to feelings of depression.  
  • Serotonin levels: Serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter), affects mood. Since sunlight helps regulate serotonin, reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, leading to depression. 
  • Melatonin levels: Melatonin is another brain chemical that affects sleep patterns and mood. The lack of sunlight may cause an overproduction of melatonin in some people, causing one to feel sluggish and sleepy during the winter.  
  • Vitamin D deficiency: Vitamin D can help promote serotonin activity. Vitamin D is produced in the skin when exposed to sunlight. Lack of sunlight and vitamin D from food can lead to vitamin D deficiency. That change can affect serotonin levels and mood.  

Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms  

SAD symptoms are similar to depression but are characterized by recurrent seasonal patterns occurring repetitively at a particular time of year.  

Seasonal depression symptoms include symptoms associated with major depression and specific symptoms that differ between winter depression and summer depression. The severity of SAD symptoms may vary from person to person.  

Symptoms of SAD May Include:  

  • Feeling sad most of the time  
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless  
  • Losing interest in activities once enjoyed  
  • Extreme fatigue and lack of energy  
  • Trouble concentrating  
  • Carbohydrate cravings, overeating, and weight gain  
  • Sleeping problems (usually oversleeping)  
  • Feeling irritated or agitated  
  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide  

Symptoms Specific to Winter-onset SAD or Winter Depression May Include:  

  • Oversleeping  
  • Overeating, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates  
  • Weight gain  
  • Social withdrawal (feeling like hibernating)  

Symptoms Specific to Summer-onset SAD or Summer Depression May Include:  

  • Trouble sleeping  
  • Poor appetite leading to weight loss  
  • Agitation and restlessness  
  • Anxiety  
  • Episodes of violent behavior  

Risk factors for SAD seasonal depression generally affect people in age groups of 15 to 55 and is more prevalent among women than men. Factors that may increase the risk of seasonal depression include:  

Living far from the equator: Seasonal depression is more common among people who live far north or far south from the equator. There is less sunlight during the winter at these latitudes.  

Family history: Have blood relatives with SAD or other forms of depression or mental health conditions.  

Pre-existing depression or bipolar disorder: People with these disorders may have an increased risk of SAD.  

How is Seasonal Depression Diagnosed?  

Seasonal depression can be difficult to diagnose because many other types of depression have similar symptoms. If you have symptoms of SAD, see your medical provider for a thorough evaluation. Your doctor may refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist to evaluate your pattern of symptoms and decide if you have a seasonal affective disorder or another mood disorder. There are no specific blood tests or scans to diagnose SAD.  

A Diagnosis of SAD Can Usually Be Confirmed If:  

  • Depression happens at a similar time each year for at least two years in a row  
  • You do not have depressive symptoms during other seasons    

Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment  

There are several treatment options available to manage seasonal affective disorder; some are mentioned below:  

Light Therapy  

Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is a safe, simple, and effective method of replacing lost access to sunlight. Light therapy treatment involves sitting in front of a light therapy lamp for 20-30 minutes every day. The light mimics natural outdoor light and helps reset your circadian rhythm. Light therapy improves SAD by encouraging the brain to increase the production of serotonin (a chemical that affects mood) and reduce the production of melatonin (a chemical that makes you sleepy).  

While side effects of light therapy are minimal, be cautious if you have sensitivity to light or are taking medications that increase your sensitivity to light. Speak to your doctor if you are unsure about the suitability of the SAD light therapy lamp.  


Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, is another treatment option for SAD. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that utilizes techniques to help people learn how to cope with difficult situations and explore thoughts and behaviors to increase self-awareness.  

The therapy can help you learn healthy ways to identify and change negative thoughts, manage stress, and build healthy behaviors, such as increasing physical activity and improving sleep patterns. Studies have shown CBT effectively treats seasonal depression producing long-lasting results.  


Antidepressants are often recommended to treat depression and are also used to treat SAD if symptoms are severe. Your doctor may recommend taking antidepressants at the onset of the winter before your symptoms typically begin each year and continue until spring.  


Getting sufficient sunlight can help improve your symptoms. Try to spend more time outdoors during the day and also increase the amount of sunlight entering your home or office.  

Vitamin D  

Many people with the seasonal affective disorder often have vitamin D deficiency. A vitamin D supplement may help improve symptoms. If your blood tests indicate vitamin D deficiency, your healthcare provider may start vitamin D supplementation.  

Self-care and Preventive Tips for Managing SAD: 

In addition to your treatment plan for seasonal depression, there are things you can do yourself to help relieve symptoms. You can take the following steps to manage and even prevent SAD:  

  • Start using a light therapy lamp at the onset of the Autumn before you feel SAD symptoms.  
  • If you feel you may be depressed, seek medical help as soon as possible. · Eat a healthy and well-balanced diet with enough vitamins and minerals that can give you the nutrition and energy you need.  
  • Exercise regularly, at least 30 minutes a day, five times a week. Exercise and other physical activities help relieve stress and anxiety. Being fit can make you feel better and enhance your self-esteem.  
  • Spending more time outside during the daytime helps to balance circadian rhythm naturally.  
  • Make your home and work environments sunnier and brighter. Sit close to windows when you are indoors.  
  • Limit your alcohol intake, as it can make depression worse.  
  • Going to bed, waking up at about the same time each day, and sleeping at least eight hours can help treat SAD. Try to avoid stressful situations and take steps to manage stress.  
  • Spending more time with friends and family is a great way to lift your mood and avoid social isolation. Essential oils have a therapeutic effect and can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. You can apply them to your skin or use a diffuser to inhale the aroma.  
  • Do things that you love and make you feel better. Taking up a hobby can also help.  

If you have symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, speak to your healthcare provider to discuss the best treatment plan to manage your condition. Proactive steps can tackle these mood disorders before they grow worse and more debilitating. 


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HPFY Sailaxmi Chennuru

Sailaxmi Chennuru

Sailaxmi Chennuru, has been a Health Products For You contributor since 2017. A business management graduate, the study of anatomy has always been of interest to her.

After working as a medical transcriptionist for several years, she developed a keen interest ...

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