The aptly named (and just as aptly abbreviated) Seasonal Affective Disorder—SAD for short—is a type of depression that coincides with the change in seasons. Most people who experience SAD find their symptoms start around late fall and last through the winter, for some lasting until summer.

However, while less common, there are those who encounter SAD during the spring and summer months. About 10% of those who suffer with SAD are in this category.

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As an aside, SAD is also an acronym for Social Anxiety Disorder—but with this blog, we’re focusing on the sadness that accompanies the seasons.

 

Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Real? 

Overall, in the U.S. alone, about 5% of adults experience SAD, according to the American Psychiatric Association, and typically it can last about 40% of the year.

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the phrase—Seasonal Affective Disorder—was  coined to identify what is sometimes referred to as the “winter blues.” But today we know that SAD is actually a bit more than that.

The disorder is categorized as a subtype of major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder. In other words, if you suffer from SAD, you’re not imagining it, what you’re feeling is not just in your head—the symptoms are real. The good news we’ll share some of the numerous ways to cope with the disorder and help improve your mood and combat SAD.

According to the Mayo Clinic, SAD occurs more often in women than men and more frequently in younger (meaning just past your teens) adults than in older adults. People who have bipolar disorder are more likely to be SAD sufferers too. Family history, geography and low vitamin D levels may also play a role. For example, some research has shown that approximately 15% of those with seasonal affective disorder also have a first-degree relative (think parents, siblings, children) with the condition. Those who live in northern locations—or furthest away from the equator—where you’re likely to get less sunlight at certain times of the year—are more likely to be victims of SAD. For example, SAD’s stakes are more likely to take hold if you reside in New Hampshire than in Florida.

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Why? Less sunlight and shorter days are believed to be linked to a chemical change in the brain that may result in SAD, says this post.

On the other hand, this article advises that summer SAD may be related to allergies such as airborne pollen or body image concerns that accompany bathing suit season. Additionally, the longer days lead to shorter nights, and the hotter weather and changes in daily circadian rhythms may disrupt sleep patterns.

But the definitive causes of SAD—in all seasons—are not yet completely understood.

 

What are Some SAD Symptoms?

Mood changes are an overarching symptom. Because this disorder falls into the category of depression, it won’t surprise you to read that the symptoms can range from feeling a little sad to the more serious case of not only not wanting to get out of bed, but actually not getting out of bed. Like other forms of depression, you may feel anxious, angry, fatigued, and hopeless. Things that you used to enjoy may bring you less—or no—pleasure. Your sex drive may decrease while your weight may increase. And sugar cravings, headaches, lack of concentration and fuzzy brain can be other symptoms.

This article differentiates between symptoms of “winter” SAD and “summer” SAD.

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The first piece of good news? A psychiatrist or other mental health practitioner can diagnose what you’re going through by taking a medical history and conducting a mental health exam. This will help pinpoint the cause of your depression—it may not be SAD-specific—and help you toward finding the best ways to manage what you’re going through.

 

Some Ways to Address Seasonal Affective Disorder

Let’s take a look at these four categories and share some tips that experts recommend for managing SAD symptoms.

Diet—As with almost everything, if not with actually everything, proper nutrition is key to promoting and maintaining good health. SAD is no exception, but in particular, there are several nutrients to pay close attention to with this disorder.

Some research has shown an association between low vitamin D levels and seasonal affective disorder. Especially in the winter months, when a lack of sun makes it harder for your body to produce its own vitamin D, without proper supplementation people are at greater risk for insufficiency of “the sunshine vitamin.”

And we know that SAD is more likely to take hold in winter months when people don’t see the sun enough. In addition, vitamin D can also help boost serotonin levels, a chemical in the brain that impacts mood and depression and helps modulate sleep. If you think your “winter blues” might be related to SAD, it’s just one more reason to get your vitamin D levels tested. If in fact, your levels are low, you can take steps, like adding or increasing your vitamin D supplement intake, if needed.

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Speaking of serotonin, while it’s not a nutrient, there are foods that contain tryptophan, an amino acid that also helps your body make more serotonin. Salmon, spinach, eggs and tofu are just some of the foods that contain tryptophan. Some experts say that a drop in serotonin levels may play a role in SAD.

Omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish and supplements (as EPA and DHA) and in the plant form (ALA) in flaxseed, canola and walnut oils (and also in supplements) help to ensure a healthy level of serotonin. In addition, this article highlights the potential for omega-3 EPA and DHA consideration when it comes to mood. Testing to determine if you have the “goldilocks” level—not too low, not too high, but just right!—of EPA and DHA in your blood is easy and convenient with an at-home blood test. Once you know your numbers, you can make adjustments if needed.

Melatonin is a hormone produced by your body that is best known to help regulate sleep. It’s found in some foods, including eggs, oily fish (e.g., salmon, sardines), whole milk, pistachios and mushrooms. In addition, melatonin is readily available in supplements. But melatonin has a tricky relationship with SAD. Some research shows that melatonin can help improve the winter blues, while this article suggests that less daylight and little, if any, sun exposure in fall and winter months, pushes the brain to overproduce melatonin, which may actually result in seasonal affective disorder.

And, mind your carbs. Eating complex carbohydrates—such as whole grains, brown rice and lentils to name a few—might help reduce some symptoms of seasonal depression. Eating too many simple carbohydrates (e.g., cake, candy, white bread) can result in a sudden spike in insulin, and a high blood sugar level followed suddenly by a sugar crash, potentially exacerbating the symptoms of SAD.  Read more here.

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Lifestyle Changes—Exercise. There we said it. You knew that was coming. But the truth is that regular exercise—some say a minimum of 30 minutes daily, others say get in what you can because some exercise is better than none—is not only great for you physically but it can also greatly improve your mood and help alleviate winter doldrums or summer sadness. Let’s face facts: exercising is an energy elevator and mood enhancer.

Get Outside—grab whatever rays you can even during the winter. You may not be feeling the sun, however getting outdoors is still good for you. Even 10 minutes a day in fresh weather (even when it’s cold; dress appropriately!) can clear cobwebs in your brain and get your blood flowing. The same is true for the summer months. It may be hard to believe, but some of us don’t want to go outdoors when it’s hot. Remember that temperature love varies from one person to the next. If you hate the heat, still try for at least a little sunshine and fresh air daily. (And dress appropriately, including sun protection.)

And don’t forget to get outside of yourself. When you’re feeling sad, it’s all too easy to isolate, to read, to watch tv or stream movies in a dark room. But when you have seasonal affective disorder, you may need to push yourself to socialize, to be with friends who lift your mood, and to do things that bring you joy. Not necessarily every day, but often enough so that you’re reminded there can be happiness even during seasons that are tough for you.

Be kind to yourself. You may find that keeping a gratitude journal can serve as a reminder that you do have a lot going for you even in the midst of SAD.

These articles—here and here—offer additional lifestyle suggestions to combat SAD. Find what works for you.

Therapies—Right off the bat there are two kinds of therapy to consider.

The first is good old talk therapy which might help you better understand what you’re going through and why and help you find solutions. Look for a therapist who specializes in psychotherapy (that’s another name for talk therapy), cognitive-behavioral therapy, and/or relationship therapy. You could try a licensed social worker, a psychologist or a psychiatric nurse. For some, pastoral counseling might be a preferred option, but consider that your priest or rabbi might not have a lot of experience specifically with seasonal affected disorder. Many psychiatrists, too, will engage in psychotherapy, but they also are able to prescribe medications if that’s what’s recommended to help alleviate your depression.

Another therapy that could help with seasonal affective depression is light therapy, which involves the use of a light box that mimics the effects of outdoor light, delivering a therapeutic dose of bright light to treat SAD symptoms. But don’t just buy any old light (or light box) off the internet without first talking with your healthcare practitioner because there’s a lot to consider.

For example, there are many options of light boxes and some are specifically developed to treat SAD, but others are not. You’ll have to make decisions about brightness, UV light, avoiding potential eye damage, shapes and sizes and more. For those reasons and the fact that light boxes aren’t FDA approved for treating SAD, it’s probably best to discuss your options with your healthcare practitioners (including the healthcare professional working with you to help address your SAD and your eye doctor).

Also know that for some people, a light box will work best in conjunction with other SAD treatments. Read more about light therapy here and here.

Medication—If your SAD symptoms are severe and if you’ve tried the above suggestions without success, consider that your doctor may want to prescribe an antidepressant or an anti-anxiety medication, most likely one in the Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) category. In this situation, having the depression diagnosis that we discussed above will be especially important and may also include a physical exam to best inform the root of your symptoms as your condition might be something other than seasonal affective disorder.

Although there’s no guarantee that you can prevent a repeat of seasonal affective disorder, paying attention to your symptoms and their timing, and then managing them and maintaining those healthy habits even when you’re out of seasonal affective disorder, may help you avoid the more serious cases of SAD year after year. To borrow from the popular drama series Game of Thrones, just because “winter’s coming…” it doesn’t mean you’re going to lose the fight.

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These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This test is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, prevent or mitigate any disease. This site does not offer medical advice, and nothing contained herein is intended to establish a doctor/patient relationship. OmegaQuant, LLC is regulated under the Clinical Laboratory improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA) and is qualified to perform high complexity clinical testing. The performance characteristics of this test were determined by OmegaQuant, LLC. It has not been cleared or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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