Learn / Seasonal Affective Disorder: The Winter Blues or Something More?

Seasonal Affective Disorder: The Winter Blues or Something More?

Dr. Malasri Chaudhery-Malgeri, Ph.D.
 February 6th, 2024

Key Points

  • Learn What Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Is
  • Understand the Symptoms Associated with SAD
  • Explore Treatment Options for SAD

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a recurrent depressive disorder that occurs at specific times of the year. It is most common in winter, but can also occur during other seasons. SAD is thought to be caused by changes in the amount of daylight, with shorter days leading to lower levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is involved in mood regulation. SAD is considered a significant affective disorder, as Those with SAD experience higher levels of depressive symptoms compared to those without the disorder. Approximately 10% of all affective disorders exhibit a seasonal pattern of recurrence, with higher rates among bipolar patients. 

Symptoms of SAD

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) manifests through a range of symptoms that can disrupt daily life and overall well-being. Understanding these symptoms is crucial for recognizing and addressing SAD effectively. 

Persistent Depression

One prominent symptom of SAD is persistent depression. Individuals may experience a profound sense of sadness or hopelessness that lingers for most of the day, nearly every day. This emotional state can be debilitating, making it challenging to engage in daily activities and maintain a positive outlook.

Loss of Interest

Another key symptom of SAD is a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable. Hobbies, social interactions, and cherished pastimes may become less appealing or even feel overwhelming. This loss of interest can lead to feelings of isolation and a reduced sense of fulfillment.

Low Energy

Low energy levels are another common symptom of SAD. Individuals may feel perpetually fatigued, lacking the motivation and physical stamina to carry out their usual tasks. This persistent tiredness can interfere with work, relationships, and overall productivity.

Difficulty with Sleep

Disturbances in sleep patterns are also frequently associated with SAD. Insomnia, characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep, is a common complaint. Conversely, some individuals may experience excessive sleepiness or hypersomnia, causing excessive sleep without feeling refreshed. These sleep disruptions can further exacerbate other SAD symptoms and contribute to daytime fatigue.

Changes in Appetite

Changes in appetite and weight can also accompany SAD. Some individuals may experience an increased appetite and weight gain, while others may have decreased appetite and unintentional weight loss. These fluctuations in eating patterns can further impact mood and energy levels.

Recognizing these symptoms is the first step towards effectively managing SAD. If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, seeking professional help from mental health experts is crucial. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment can significantly improve the quality of life for individuals affected by SAD.

Causes of SAD

The causes of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) are not fully understood, but it is believed that a combination of factors may be involved, including reduced sunlight, changes in brain chemistry, and genetics. 

Reduced sunlight is thought to be a primary trigger for SAD, as it can disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythm, which regulates sleep-wake cycles and mood.  With less sunlight in the winter months, the body produces more melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep. This can lead to feelings of fatigue and depression. Additionally, the lack of sunlight can also reduce the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is associated with happiness and well-being.

Changes in brain chemistry are also thought to play a role in SAD. Studies have shown that people with SAD have lower levels of serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that are involved in mood regulation. These changes in brain chemistry can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and irritability.

Genetics may also contribute to SAD, as it is more common in people who have a family history of the condition. Studies have found that people who have a close relative with SAD are more likely to develop the condition themselves, but genetics aren’t the only reason why SAD develops.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Amongst College Students

Research has shown that SAD is substantially more prevalent among college students than nonseasonal depression. College students may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of SAD due to the geographical location of their schools. 

In addition to the direct effects of SAD on students’ mental health, this mental illness can also indirectly impact their academic success and social interactions. This is because SAD can interfere with students’ motivation, concentration, and ability to interact with others. As a result, students with SAD may be more likely to experience academic difficulties and social isolation. This multifaceted impact of SAD on college students highlights the importance of providing students with the support they need to manage this mental illness.

SAD & Addiction Treatment 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can have a significant impact on individuals undergoing addiction treatment. Research has shown that the use of addictive drugs follows seasonal patterns, with an increase in alcohol use predominantly during the winter. This suggests that individuals in addiction treatment may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of SAD during certain times of the year, potentially exacerbating their addiction-related symptoms.

SAD has been associated with cognitive impairments similar to those seen in nonseasonal depression. This is particularly relevant in the context of addiction treatment, as cognitive deficits can impact individuals’ ability to engage effectively in treatment programs and may hinder their progress toward recovery.

Individuals with comorbid disorders, such as SAD and addiction, have tendencies towards chronicity and treatment resistance. Those with an addiction and SAD may face greater challenges in achieving successful treatment outcomes.

The impact of the contemporary Westernized diet, which has been linked to addictive behaviors, may contribute to poor treatment outcomes for individuals with comorbid SAD and addiction. This highlights the importance of addressing dietary factors and nutritional interventions. Finding treatment programs that include nutritional counseling and/or care can be helpful to work through this when in recovery. 

Treatment Options for SAD

Treatment options for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), include light therapy, medication, psychotherapy, vitamin D supplements, and exercise.

Light Therapy

Light therapy is one of the most effective treatments for SAD. It involves sitting in front of a light box that emits bright light, stimulating sunlight. Light therapy is thought to work by increasing levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is involved in mood regulation.


Medication can also be an effective treatment for SAD. Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), can help to improve mood and energy levels.


Psychotherapy can also be helpful in treating SAD. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that helps people to identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that may be contributing to their depression.


Vitamin D supplements may also help treat SAD. Vitamin D is a nutrient that is essential for bone health, and it is also thought to play a role in mood regulation and sleep quality. Additionally, Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce inflammation and improve brain function and can help with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Remember to consult your physician before starting any supplements to ensure the best course of action with your supplementation protocol.


Exercise can also help to improve mood and energy levels, and it may also help treat SAD. Exercise increases endorphin levels,  which are neurotransmitters that have mood-boosting effects.

If you are experiencing symptoms of SAD, it is important to see a healthcare provider to discuss treatment options. SAD is a treatable condition, and there are many effective treatments available.

Preventing and Coping With SAD

Coping mechanisms for SAD include getting regular exercise, spending time in natural light, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and practicing relaxation techniques. While the exact causes of SAD are not fully understood, there are several things people can do to reduce their risk of developing the condition or to lessen the severity of their symptoms. These include:

  1. Getting regular exercise is an effective way to improve mood and energy levels, which can be beneficial for people with SAD. For example, you could go on regular walks, work out in a gym, or try yoga. exercise can help to improve sleep quality, which can also be beneficial for people with SAD.
  2. Spending time in natural light is another helpful coping mechanism for SAD. Getting outside and spending time in natural light can help to improve mood and energy levels, and can also help to reduce symptoms of depression.
  3. Eating a healthy diet is also important for people with SAD. Eating a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help to improve overall health and well-being, which can also help to reduce symptoms of depression. Additionally, some foods, such as fish, nuts, and seeds, are known to contain nutrients that can help to improve mood and energy levels.
  4. Getting enough sleep is another important coping mechanism for SAD. When people are sleep-deprived, they are more likely to experience symptoms of depression. Adequate sleep can help improve mood and energy levels, and can also help reduce symptoms of depression.
  5. Finally, practicing relaxation techniques can also be helpful for people with SAD. Relaxation techniques, such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing, can help to reduce stress and anxiety, which can also help to improve mood and energy levels.

Helping A Loved One With Seasonal Affective Disorder

1. Listen and be supportive. Let your loved one know that you are there for them and that you understand what they experiencing. The key is to listen, and offer support without judgment.

2. Encourage your loved one to seek professional help. SAD is a serious condition that can be treated with healthy lifestyle choices, therapy and medication. Encourage your loved one to seek professional help if they are struggling to cope with their symptoms. 

3. Help your loved one to create a light therapy schedule. Light therapy is a treatment for SAD that involves exposing the person to bright light for a certain amount of time each day. Help your loved one to create a light therapy schedule that works for them and encourage them to stick to it. Using tools like habit trackers, alarms connected to calendar reminders, and other planning tools can help.

4. Help your loved one to make healthy lifestyle changes.  Eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and getting enough sleep can help to improve mood and reduce the symptoms of SAD. Encourage your loved one to make healthy lifestyle changes and support them in their efforts.

5. Be patient and understanding. SAD can be a challenging condition to deal with. It is important to be patient and understanding with your loved one and to give them the support they need.

How To Get Treated for SAD

To get diagnosed and treated for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), you will need to visit a doctor. The doctor will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. They may also perform a physical exam. If the doctor suspects that you have SAD, they may refer you to a mental health professional for further evaluation and treatment. 

The mental health professional will conduct a more thorough evaluation of your symptoms and history. They may also use psychological tests to help diagnose SAD. If you are diagnosed with SAD, the mental health professional will develop a treatment plan that is tailored to your individual needs. This plan may include therapy, medication, or a combination of both. Therapy can help you to learn coping mechanisms for managing your symptoms of SAD. Medication can also be helpful in treating SAD. Many different types of medications can treat SAD, and your doctor will work with you to find the one that is right for you. With proper treatment, SAD can be managed effectively. 

Questions to Ask Your Provider

To get the best care from your provider, it is important to be an active participant in your care. This means asking questions, being clear about your goals, and being aware of the risks and benefits of different treatment options.

If you have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), there are a few questions you can ask your provider to help you get the best care possible. Some of these questions include:

  • What are the treatment options for SAD? 
  • What are the risks and benefits of each treatment option? 
  • What can I do to manage my symptoms of SAD? 
  • What resources are available to me to help me manage my SAD?
  • Are there any support groups or additional resources you can refer me to?

Many treatment centers provide treatment for SAD and other co-occurring disorders. To explore treatment facilities and options, see our vast list of programs.

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