Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that is related to the changes in the seasons. For those with Seasonal Affective Disorder, they often notice that their symptoms begin and end at the same time each year. 

SAD most often happens in the winter months and is more common in areas that are prone to long, harsh winters. SAD symptoms can range from mild to severe. The cause of SAD is not well understood. What researchers do know is that brain chemicals that affect mood are impacted by the amount of light you receive each day. 

Melatonin, the brain chemical that induces sleep, is theorized to produce more during the winter months. The increased melatonin makes those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder feel tired and sluggish during the winter months. 

Seratonin is a brain chemical that is responsible for regulating mood and levels drop when there is less light available. The drop in serotonin levels contributes to Seasonal Affective Disorder, although researchers are still not sure why some people are more susceptible than others to developing SAD while living in the same region. 

What factors increase the risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Anyone can develop SAD, but risk factors for the disorder include:

  • A family history of SAD
  • Female gender
  • A history of depression or bipolar disorder
  • Living in a geographical region that does not receive much sunlight during the winter months

The symptoms of SAD closely mimic those of other types of depression and include:

  • Sleeping too much, or difficulty sleeping at night
  • Changes in appetite. SAD can cause an increased craving for carbohydrates. It is theorized that this is the body’s way of demanding food that can be converted to quick energy. A diet rich in carbohydrates can lead to weight gain, which further exacerbates depression. 
  • Feeling sad, without being able to pinpoint the cause of your sadness 
  • A decline in energy
  • Trouble concentrating
  • A loss of enthusiasm for normal activities
  • Feeling irritable, anxious or hopeless
  • Headaches, stomach pain, muscular pain of unknown origin

If you think it is possible you might suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, talk to your doctor. There are things you can do to improve your mood through the winter season. 

How to prevent or treat SAD

Your healthcare provider will help you come up with a treatment plan if you are diagnosed with Seasonal Depressive Disorder. Treatment and preventative options include:

  • Medication—antidepressants can help reduce the symptoms of SAD.
  • Counseling—counseling can give you the tools to cope with feelings of sadness or depression and help you find positive ways to deal with having SAD.
  • Light therapy—a lightbox or visor may be advised for you to spend a certain amount of time in front of each day. In addition, taking steps to get as much natural light as possible can help reduce symptoms. Make sure you spend some time outdoors each day, keep blinds or curtains open as much as possible during the day and take full advantage of sunshiny days. 
  • Exercise—exercise can improve your energy and mood, help prevent weight gain, and can also help you manage feelings of anxiety.
  • Limit sugar and carbohydrates—focus instead on healthy foods
  • Sleep hygiene—SAD can interrupt natural sleep/wake cycles, so maintaining good sleep hygiene by going to bed at the same time each night, freeing your bedroom of distractions and the use of white noise can all help you to get quality sleep. 
  • Avoid the use of alcohol or illicit drugs to manage your mood.