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Beating the Winter Blues: Understanding and Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

November 16th, 2023 | 3 min. read

By Everside Health

While many people experience the “winter blues,” some people may have a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Treatments are available that can help many people with SAD. Talk to your provider about which treatment, or combination of treatments, is best for you.

What is SAD?

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression that affects some people at about the same time each year, usually beginning in the late fall or early winter. SAD is associated with biochemical brain changes that occur with decreased sunlight and changes to a person’s internal clock known as their circadian rhythm.

Causes of SAD

The exact cause of SAD is unknown but there are three main factors which may be related to seasonal cycles that seem to be involved.

Lower availability of serotonin: Serotonin is responsible for feelings of well-being and happiness. With less exposure to sunlight in winter, there may be lower levels of serotonin leading to symptoms of depression.

Increased levels of melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone that helps to regulate sleep and wake cycles. People with SAD may overproduce this hormone.

Underproduction of Vitamin D: Vitamin D supports immune health, muscle function and brain cell activity. It is produced when a person’s skin is exposed to sunlight. Production can decrease in the winter months.

SAD symptoms

SAD episodes in the colder seasons may be more prone to:

  • Major depression symptoms
  • Sleeping too much
  • Lack of energy and weight gain
  • Overeating and craving carbs
  • Withdrawing socially or “hibernating”

Did you know?

About 5% of adults in the U.S. suffer from seasonal affective disorder, and typically experience symptoms about 40% of the year


SAD risk factors

Generally, the farther one lives from the equator, the more likely they are to develop SAD.   Other factors may include:

Age: SAD can affect people of any age, but it is more common in younger adults between the ages of 18 and 30.

Gender: Women are diagnosed with SAD four times more often than men.

Existing mood disorders: In people with depression or bipolar disorder, depressive symptoms may worsen with the seasons.

Family history: Those with family members who’ve suffered from any kind of depression are more likely to develop SAD.

Preventing and treating Seasonal Affective Disorder

How can SAD be prevented? 

Because the timing of the onset of winter pattern, SAD is so predictable, people with a history of SAD might benefit from starting treatment before the fall to help prevent or reduce depression. A healthy lifestyle can help!

Do something you enjoy: Try playing a musical instrument, following a new recipe, working on a crossword puzzle, building something new in the workshop, or knitting.

Get outside in nature and sunlight: Spending time in nature has cognitive, emotional and mental health benefits. Go outside when it’s warmer or try a new hobby or activity outside.

Stay connected with others: Devote time and attention to develop and maintain relationships. Create a larger and more diverse social network. Having more and different types of people in our lives can potentially provide a greater variety of resources, information, and opportunities to help us with life’s many challenges.

Eat healthy and avoid sugary foods: Eating healthy to maintain nutrient, blood sugar and energy levels will help in keeping your moods balanced throughout the day. Stick with whole grains, lean proteins and fruits and vegetables when shopping and preparing meals.

Practice gratitude: Gratitude can be practiced daily. Positive gestures benefit you by releasing oxytocin, a hormone that helps deepen feelings of connectedness. Think back on your day and write down the things that went well. Write about your blessings, gifted abilities or how you may have helped others.

How is SAD treated? 

Treatments are available that can help many people with SAD. They fall into four main categories either used alone or in combination.

Vitamin D: Because many people with SAD often have vitamin D deficiency, eating foods higher in Vitamin D, getting outside when it’s sunny or using a Vitamin D supplement may help improve SAD symptoms.

Light Therapy: A light therapy box mimics outdoor light and may cause a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD. It's best to talk with your health care provider first before purchasing and using a light therapy box to make sure this type of therapy is right for you.

Psychotherapy or “Talk Therapy”: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy helping people learn how to cope with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). CBT-SAD also uses a process called behavioral activation, which helps individuals engage in indoor or outdoor activities to combat the loss of interest they typically experience in the winter.

Medications: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may help regulate brain chemicals and ease SAD depression symptoms. All medications can have side effects. Talk to your doctor about the different types of SSRIs prescribed, dosage, benefits, and side effects when used for SAD symptoms.

Want to learn more?

Contact your provider for more information on SAD treatments right for you.