Kyja Stygar, M.D.
Birthing Centers, Family Medicine
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a variation in mood relating to the season and considered a form of depression. There are two different types: fall/winter-onset and spring/summer-onset. The type of SAD you’ve most likely heard of is the one with symptoms starting during the end of fall and early winter, and usually improving in spring.
The symptoms of fall/winter-onset SAD can have these symptoms:
- Mood changes
- Fatigue and lower energy levels
- Sleep changes
- Withdrawal from others and activities that are usually enjoyable
- Suffering from aches and pains
- Increase in appetite and, more specifically, carb cravings
- Weight gain
The numbers of fall/winter SAD tend to be higher further from the equator. This is thought to be because of the lack of light in the winter months, which causes levels of serotonin to drop. There are a few ways you can combat the effects of SAD:
- Prescribed medication to increase serotonin levels
- Vitamin D supplements
- Exercise, specifically aerobic
- Getting quality sleep by turning off technology at least one hour before bed, avoiding long naps during the day and keeping regular sleep and wake times, even on the weekends
- Light therapy
Light therapy can be one of the most effective ways to improve SAD. On a sunny day, walking at least 30 minutes outside or on a cloudy day for two hours, can help alleviate the symptoms. However, most people can’t make time to fit in two hours of walking, so there are other ways to increase daily light intake:
- A light box or lamp with 10,000 LUX — You only need to use the lamp for 30–60 minutes on a daily basis, but try using it right away in the morning and at the same time every day to get the most benefit.
- A dawn simulator — If you have difficulty waking up during dark winter mornings, a dawn simulator is an alarm clock with a light that progressively gets brighter 30–60 minutes before your alarm goes off.
Recognizing the symptoms of SAD can prevent them from becoming severe. If your symptoms persist or worsen, contact your primary care provider to talk about your concerns.
Watch this video about seasonal affective disorder:
Read a Q&A about seasonal depression to learn more.