Medically reviewed by Michele Emery, DNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/07/2020
It happens—like clockwork—the same time every year. Those warm summer evenings spent on rooftop bars, around bonfires on the beach or in lakeside tents slowly cool down into chilly nights spent drinking dark brown lagers in your favorite hole-in-the-wall dive or on the couch binge-watching TV with your lady love.
It’s not bad at first, but as the days get shorter and the temperatures plummet, that feeling starts seeping in; that funk we all used to know as “the winter blues.”
Only, as we’ve learned more about these brief bouts of seasonal depression, we’ve come to understand they’re part of a larger, very real thing.
And that very real thing is called “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (Aptly abbreviated by scientists and behavioral therapists as “SAD”).
But what actually is Seasonal Affective Disorder? What are its symptoms? What does the science say to back it up? And how can you help treat your SAD? Read on, friends. We’re with ya.
It’s important to understand that Seasonal Affective Disorder is a clinically diagnosed mood disorder. It can affect everyone, even if you have no prior or pre-existing mental health issues.
When a lot of us were younger, our parents and teachers would simply write this kind of seasonal depression off as “the winter blues.” They’d tell us to think of warm sunny days and our summer vacations, and then dismiss it, telling us to just hunker down and deal with it.
However, it’s important to not ignore SAD because it can have a dramatic impact not just on your general mood, but your work performance, relationships, social life and aspects of your physical health like your weight, skin health, etc.
It’s also important to remember that despite common misconception, Seasonal Affective Disorder doesn’t just affect people in the fall and winter months. Though there are drastically fewer people affected by SAD during the spring and summer months, it does happen.
Though it seems much more common, statistics show that only four percent to six percent of people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder annually, and many more people (Anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent) experience “mild” SAD.
Chances are, if you were interested enough in SAD to search Google for this article, you or someone you know is probably experiencing some of the symptoms:
Increased feeling of depression for most of the day, every day.
Low interest in things you normally enjoy.
Sleep issues—either not getting enough of it or getting way too much of it.
General feeling of hopelessness and worthlessness.
Loss of focus.
An increase in negative thoughts.
Appetite changes, particularly for foods high in carbs.
Sounds more like a bad breakup to us, complete with increased listening sessions of The Smiths and everything. Slightly ambiguous symptoms aside, we also want to remind everyone that it’s perfectly normal to have these feelings and experience these symptoms on occasion. We all have bad days.
But if you’re noticing these symptoms and they’re becoming daily problems in your life, it’s definitely worth seeing your healthcare provider or seeking help elsewhere.
As for what causes SAD, there appear to be a couple different things:
The first and most obvious is a decrease in serotonin. Serotonin is our brain’s natural mood booster. It’s associated with increased focus and energy levels, and an overall sense of happiness.
Because we receive so little access to sunlight in the winter months, it’s routine to experience a dip in serotonin levels. There’s a lot of medical mumbo jumbo involved, but a recent study found that diminished sunlight during the colder months leads to increased levels of a neurotransmitter called Serotonin Transporter Protein (SERT), which effectively lowers the body’s active serotonin levels. And thus, depression.
The second is an increase in melatonin levels. Unlike serotonin, melatonin is a bodily hormone that helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythms, which means it regulates our sleep patterns and mood. You’d think that an increase in melatonin would be good, but studies actually show that without bright sunlight in the morning, melatonin production occurs later, which can make getting to sleep more difficult, which in turn affects our mood, energy levels, focus, etc.
These things working together create a perfect storm of sorts that can result in what we mentioned above; things like lethargy, sadness, oversleeping, low energy, etc.
While we’re still trying to zero in on the exact causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder, scientists have found some effective treatments for it.
Medication. Because Seasonal Affective Disorder is a lot like other depressions in that it’s associated with a dysfunction in serotonin levels, antidepressants like Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) have proven exceptionally effective in treating it.
Light therapy: Because the body’s exposure to light (or lack thereof) plays such a significant role in triggering Seasonal Affective Disorder in the overwhelming majority of people affected by it, it only makes sense that light therapy is a common treatment.
More particularly, it’s important to seek light therapy in the morning.
Studies have shown that sitting in front of a designated light box early in the morning can drastically reduce one’s susceptibility to an SAD triggering.
Vitamin D: We’ve known for some time that low levels of vitamin D are associated with depression. Scientists have also learned that because those living 33 degrees north and 30 degrees south of the equator aren’t able to properly synthesize enough Vitamin D, which means that, from November through February, we are scientifically incapable of getting the Vitamin D many of us need.
Luckily, there are a ton of supplements, even prescription strength,and foods out there rich in vitamin D, and an increase in it has definitely been shown to stop Seasonal Affective Disorder in its tracks. Salmon, milk, canned tuna, oysters, mushrooms and eggs are some of these vitamin D-rich foods.
Counseling: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has also proven to work wonders for people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Traditional therapy, mixed with things like proper lighting, proper diet and a proper approach to this mental disorder can truly make all the difference.