Shedding Light on Seasonal Affective Disorder

January 21, 2020

For some, the very first and very last months of the year can be the most wonderful time. For others, not so much. Wild changes in temperatures and weather, or days where you haven’t seen the sun once, can make you feel like you have “winter blues.” You may feel your mood shift to gloomy, or feel less energetic than usual.

If it feels like these blues are affecting areas of your life—like productiveness, motivation levels, or relationships—it’s worth considering whether you have seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

How Do I Know If I Have SAD?

Dips in exposure to natural light can cause you to feel the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Most of these symptoms start in the fall and continue through winter. As we get more sunlight in spring and summer, they begin to fade.

When there’s less sunlight, hormone production can be disrupted, which can affect how your body makes melatonin and serotonin. As a result, your mood and sleep patterns can change. Circadian rhythms can also be affected by less sunlight. This can change your internal body clock and increase symptoms of depression.

Dr. Philip Levendusky, director of psychology and psychology training at McLean Hospital, explains, “SAD has become more popular thanks to strong data pointing to a psychological response to the changes in season—light, weather, and temperature—that have a strong effect on some.”

SAD has several hallmark symptoms, which include:

  • Weight and/or appetite changes, including craving foods high in carbohydrates
  • Feeling sluggish, constantly tired, or low in energy
  • Trouble sleeping, including oversleeping
  • Difficulty being motivated and/or concentrating
  • Low interest in hobbies or activities

If you feel you may have seasonal affective disorder, you aren’t alone. The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that 5% of the U.S. population experiences SAD yearly.

Stock image of pine tree in snowy landscape, darkened sky
If the seasonal changes are making you feel low, reach out to your health care provider to determine if you may have SAD and what treatments to consider

Seasonal affective disorder extends beyond winter months, as some of those with SAD experience similar symptoms in the summer, when there’s more sunlight. With the summertime version of SAD, many report feeling irritable or agitated and may experience insomnia as a result of more sunlight.

Ways You Can Treat SAD

There are many effective ways of treating SAD and its symptoms. No one treatment appears to be better than another, so patients have the option of working with their clinician to select which treatment they prefer to try. Before starting or changing any treatment, you should always talk to your health care provider.

Light Therapy

Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, has been shown to help keep SAD symptoms at bay with as little as thirty minutes a day of usage.

The best form of light therapy for seasonal affective disorder is light emitted at 10,000 lux and is white and fluorescent. Doctors recommend using light therapy early in the morning to help cancel out any circadian rhythm disruption that short days may cause. Studies suggest that lights with ultraviolet (UV) waves aren’t useful for treating SAD because of potentially harmful effects from regular UV exposure.

The benefits of light therapy can be felt as soon as one to two weeks into regular use. The American Academy of Family Physicians suggests continuing to use light therapy through the end of winter and into the beginning of the spring, even after symptoms have started to improve.

Because SAD is a recurring condition, start using light therapy earlier in the fall the following year to help stop symptoms before they begin.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) as a treatment for seasonal affective disorder, with or without light therapy, has been shown to be helpful. When CBT was added to light therapy as a treatment plan for SAD, patients felt their SAD wasn’t as severe the following winter when compared to patients that used light therapy alone to combat seasonal affective disorder.

Lifestyle Changes

Regular exercise can increase serotonin and endorphins, which can improve your mood and your mental health.

If one of the symptoms of SAD you experience is feeling sluggish, try to create a routine that adds in regular exercise, whether it’s yoga, taking a walk, or lifting weights. The feel-good chemicals our bodies create with exercise help lessen depression symptoms and fight low energy levels.

“You can help weaken your SAD symptoms by taking a proactive approach to your life and schedule if you think you’ll be feeling tired and low when it turns into winter,” suggests Levendusky. “Having a routine beyond fitness, like creating a sleep routine, is beneficial to offset SAD symptoms.”

Take a Vacation

If you’re missing the sun, Levendusky suggests going where there’s more sunshine. “A patient of mine came in to see me in November to talk about his feeling gloomy from Halloween through spring and how he stresses over winter weather—icy roads, other drivers, and bad conditions. Besides using a sun lamp and taking part in CBT, he now takes a vacation every winter to Florida for additional light, better weather, and fun, which lifts his mood by giving him something to look forward to.”

When to Talk to Your Doctor

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, you should reach out to your health care provider to determine if you may have SAD and what treatments to consider. If the symptoms continue beyond winter and early spring, talk to your doctor about what may be causing these symptoms and a treatment option that may be right for you.

McLean Hospital offers comprehensive mental health services to help children and adults living with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Find out more about depression and anxiety, including treatment programs at McLean, definitions, and helpful resources.