Seasonal Affective Disorder: What Is It and How Is It Treated?

woman with seasonal affective disorder looking out window on dreary winter day

Seasonal Affective Disorder: What Is It and How Is It Treated?

February 15, 2024

Do you suffer from the winter blues? If so, you may have seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Seasonal affective disorder causes depression that’s triggered by changing seasons. Keep reading to find out more about what seasonal affective disorder is and how it can be treated so you don’t have to suffer all season long.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is related to changes in seasons. It tends to begin and end around the same times each year. For most people, SAD symptoms start in fall and continue until spring. In rarer cases, seasonal affective disorder can begin in spring or early summer and last until fall or winter. Symptoms of SAD tend to be mild at first and become more severe as the season progresses. Common symptoms include:

  • Feeling sad and depressed most of the day, almost every day
  • Extreme fatigue and low energy levels
  • Anxiety
  • Cravings for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
  • Irritability or agitation
  • Limbs that feel heavy
  • Sleeping problems
  • Loss of interest in activities that are usually enjoyable
  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Decreased sex drive

What Causes SAD?

woman looking out window at dark, rainy day

Scientists are still determining the exact causes of seasonal affective disorder. Studies show that individuals with SAD have reduced levels of serotonin, which is a chemical that helps regulate mood. Research suggests that sunlight has an effect on maintaining serotonin levels, so it’s thought that shorter daylight hours in winter months contribute to decreased serotonin levels, causing mood issues and depression symptoms.

Vitamin D may also play a role, as it is believed to promote serotonin activity. The body produces vitamin D when the skin is exposed to sunlight. Shorter winter days can mean lower vitamin D levels, which may further reduce serotonin activity to cause seasonal affective disorder.

Another theory is that seasonal affective disorder is related to altered levels of melatonin, which is the chemical that maintains your sleep-wake cycle. Individuals with SAD may produce too much melatonin, which can cause sleepiness and oversleeping, potentially contributing to depression symptoms.

Who Is Most Likely to Experience Seasonal Affective Disorder?

An estimated five percent of the U.S. population suffers from seasonal affective disorder each year. Just like regular depression, the development of SAD may be influenced by various factors. These factors may include:

  • Gender, as women tend to be more often affected by SAD than men
  • Living further from the equator where days are shorter in winter
  • Having a vitamin D deficiency, which may worsen symptoms of SAD
  • Living with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder

Treatments for SAD

vitamin D supplement held up in front of the sun in a blue sky

For many individuals, seasonal affective disorder goes away on its own when the seasons change. However, there are treatments available for SAD that can help mitigate symptoms. Popular treatments include light therapy and vitamin D. Sitting in front of a bright light box for 30 to 45 minutes a day first thing in the morning can help make up for the lack of natural sunlight in darker months. Vitamin D supplementation may also help improve symptoms if you have a deficiency. Other effective treatments include psychotherapy, also called talk therapy or counseling, and antidepressant medication.

Ask a Pharmacist About Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder

If you’re suffering from seasonal affective disorder, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to suffer alone. Seek help so you can combat those negative thoughts and feelings. Here at Springfield Pharmacy, we want to help you live your happiest and healthiest life. If you have questions about managing depression or taking antidepressant medications and supplements, please reach out to us and we’ll be happy to provide the answers you’re looking for!