What is Seasonal Affective Disorder? Do You Have It?

As temperatures continue to fall and the sun sets earlier in the day, you may notice yourself feeling more lethargic and sadder than usual. A type of depression, known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD), can cause mood changes beginning in the fall and winter and lasting until spring or early summer. More than just “winter blues,” these symptoms can feel overwhelming and may interfere with your day-to-day functioning.  

SAD may be caused by a number of factors. The decrease in daily sunlight can cause a disruption to your body’s internal clock, leading to circadian rhythm disruptions and feelings of depression. Reduced sunlight can also cause a drop in serotonin (the key hormone that stabilizes mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness). Melatonin, a sleep-regulating hormone, may also be disrupted by reduced sunlight, making it more difficult to fall asleep. Lower melatonin levels may also cause mood disruptions. 

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder can vary from mild to severe and encompass a wide range of symptoms, including: 

  • Feelings of sadness or depression 
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed 
  • Appetite changes (usually eating more and craving carbohydrates) 
  • Sleep disruptions 
  • Lack of energy or increased fatigue 
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions 

More severe symptoms of SAD may include: 

  • Feeling worthless or guilty 
  • Thoughts of death or suicide 

Luckily, SAD can be effectively treated. One of the most common treatments for SAD can include phototherapy, a form of light therapy in which a person is exposed to bright natural or artificial lighting for a period of time each day (such as one hour) in order to improve symptoms and elevate mood. Specific light bulbs or light fixtures may be used to increase exposure to light (especially on the face), which can help reset your body’s internal clock and alleviate some symptoms.  

Other ways to help manage Seasonal Affective Disorder include:  

  • Take a plant-based multi-vitamin daily. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans do not follow a healthy eating pattern; they are typically not able to get the recommended nutrient requirements from eating food alone, often because they eat a nutrient-poor diet. Poor nutrient status means that you will be more susceptible to SAD and other mood disorders. In fact, about 75% of U.S. adults do not consume the recommended daily amount of fruit, and over 80% do not get the recommended intake of vegetables.  
  • Spotlight on B12 and Omega-3s -- Most people are deficient in one or more nutrients in the U.S. The Cleveland Clinic reports that taking vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to decrease depression and improve mood.  Excellent choices for omega-3 fatty acids include wild-caught mackerel, anchovies, sardines and salmon.  Another excellent way to get sufficient amounts of these nutrients is by taking a high quality B12 and omega-3 fatty acid nutritional supplements.    
  • Speak with a nutrition-oriented practitioner – If you are experiencing symptoms of seasonal depression, a trained, natural healthcare practitioner may be able to determine the most effective nutritional program to support you. 
  • Carve out time for mood-boosting activities – Regularly allot time for activities that you enjoy and that will strengthen your mental health, such as hiking, meeting up with friends, or reading a good book.  
  • Head outside - If you are experiencing SAD, prioritize getting as much sunlight during the day as possible. Taking a stroll around the block when the sun is at its brightest can help you feel more energized and happier.  
  • Stick to a schedule - SAD symptoms can disrupt your regular schedule, by making you feel more tired in the morning or keeping you tossing and turning at night. If you stick to a regular schedule and keep your light exposure consistent and predictable, it may help improve your mental state.  
  • Prioritize physical activity - Regular exercise can help alleviate other forms of depression as well as help manage symptoms of SAD. If weather permits, outdoor exercise can help increase light exposure, doubling the helpful effect.  
  • Open those windows – Take advantage of the sunlight as often as possible: open your shutters or blinds to let as much natural light into your home space as you can.