Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) & How to Treat It

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) & How to Treat It

Publish Date December 16, 2022 5 Minute Read
Author Kroger Health Team

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression. It affects about 5% of adults in the U.S. and is triggered by the change in seasons. Typically, symptoms start in the fall and stick around through the winter. Seasonal affective disorder can also occur in the spring and early summer, though it’s rare. Here, we will focus on SAD related to the fall to winter seasonal changes.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The specific cause is not known, but these factors may contribute to SAD:

  • Your Biological Clock (Circadian Rhythm): Less sunlight may disrupt your body's internal clock, and this can cause feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin Levels: Less sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, the brain chemical that affects your mood.
  • Melatonin Levels: The change in season can affect melatonin levels, and melatonin is associated with sleep patterns and mood.
  • Vitamin D Levels: Vitamin D affects serotonin levels, and sunlight helps us produce vitamin D. With less sun in the winter, you can have a vitamin D deficiency that can cause issues with your mood.

What Are Signs & Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

These may begin mildly and then become more significant as the season progresses:

  • Feeling sad, down, or anxious
  • Losing interest in your favorite activities
  • Carbohydrate cravings, appetite changes and weight gain
  • Low energy
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling lethargic or irritable
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Thoughts of not wanting to live

Some people who experience mild symptoms may just consider it the “winter blues.” While it’s normal to have some days when you feel down, it is important to recognize if these feelings last over multiple days or start to get worse. Reach out for help if these feelings aren’t going away or anytime you are having thoughts of suicide.

How to Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder

Treating seasonal affective disorder varies by person. It is important to consult with a healthcare provider to customize a plan that will work best for you.

  • Use light therapy at the start of fall, before you feel symptoms.
  • Spend time outside every day.
  • Eat a healthy diet to provide you with energy.
  • Exercise. Try to get up to 30 minutes of exercise, at least 3 times a week.
  • Stay connected with friends and family.
  • Work with a mental health professional who can talk with you about your feelings and teach you some effective coping strategies.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about taking an antidepressant. In some cases, taking a medication before the winter months can prevent SAD

How Does Light Therapy Work?

A special lamp or “light box” with white fluorescent light tubes is covered with a plastic screen to block ultraviolet rays. It’s about 20 times brighter than regular indoor light.

You place the lamp about 2-3 feet away from you usually within the first hour of waking up. Health professionals recommend using it 15-30 minutes every morning throughout the winter, but warn against looking directly at the light. Often, individuals start seeing results in 2-4 days.

What Foods Can Help with Seasonal Affective Disorder?

  1. Foods Rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Salmon, pasture-raised eggs & walnuts can help with your mood.
  2. Herbal Teas: Chai tea features spices like cinnamon and ginger, which can be soothing and comforting.
  3. Cinnamon: It’s clinically shown to help regulate blood sugar, and this can prevent craving sugary foods.
  4. High-fiber Foods: Fresh produce, legumes and chia seeds can help with inflammation and staying full longer.
  5. Fermented Foods: “Bad bacteria” in your gut can be a cause of depression. Probiotic-containing foods like pickles, yogurt, kombucha and sauerkraut can increase your “good bacteria.”
  6. Serotonin-boosting Foods: Nuts, eggs, cheese, turkey, pineapple and salmon can help boost your mood.

Resources to Learn More about Seasonal Affective Disorder

Do you or someone you know possibly suffer from seasonal affective disorder? Click the links below to find information to help understand and treat SAD:

Your mental health is so important. If you consistently feel the signs and symptoms listed above, take them seriously and seek help from your medical provider.

Find additional mental wellness tips here.

This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.