As the weather turns colder and the days become shorter, do you start to feel SAD? Not just sad as in gloomy, but seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a depression that occurs in seasonal patterns. As senior behavioral health quality consultant for Teladoc, Aron Wolf, MD, explains that it comes on in the fall when the hours of daylight become fewer and fewer, and subsides by springtime when light becomes more plentiful.

SAD is thought to affect 10 million Americans, while another 10 to 20 percent of us may have mild SAD.1 So if you start feeling down in the dumps this time of year, read on to learn more about seasonal depression and what you can do to combat it.

SAD symptoms

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression, not a separate disorder, Dr. Wolf says. “There are not only symptoms consistent with standard bouts of depression, but there’s an increased level of tiredness and sleepiness, as well as an intense carbohydrate craving,” he explains. “Sufferers both become couch potatoes and want to eat potatoes.”

So while moodiness, hopelessness, irritability, and difficulty concentrating may plague some people with depression this time of year, an increased desire to sleep or “hibernate” is most common in SAD patients. Due to the carb cravings, many people with SAD tend to eat more—often poorly—and gain weight. They pull away from social activities and complain about having low energy with an intense desire to rest.

SAD risks and causes

Short days and longer, darker nights are associated with season-specific depression. Dr. Wolf notes that fewer than 12 hours of available daylight can be a risk factor for the winter doldrums. SAD occurs more frequently in people who live far north or south of the equator: 9 percent of people living in New England or Alaska suffer from SAD compared to only 1 percent who live in Florida.2

SAD is four times more common in women than in men.2 Having a family history or personal history of depression also puts you at risk for SAD, and is more common in younger adults than older adults.

The exact cause of SAD is unknown, but theories suggest it involves circadian rhythms and melatonin in the body. When it’s dark out, your eyes signal to the hypothalamus in your brain that it’s time to feel tired. Your body’s pineal gland then releases melatonin, which makes your body respond with tired sensations.3 Other ideas look to the influence of serotonin, a mood-altering neurotransmitter that is affected by a number of things, including a lack of vitamin D.

SAD Treatment

If the changing of seasons alters your mood so much that you struggle with your daily routine or can’t find joy in activities that once brought pleasure, you need help. A therapist can help you identify coping skills and strategies, or in some cases, prescribe antidepressant medications. But a mental health professional will likely suggest something else, first.

While the song goes, “There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues,” Dr. Wolf says there is a cure for the wintertime blues: broadband light therapy. By sitting in front of a light box that produces 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light for just 30 minutes a day, he says, SAD sufferers typically get relief from their symptoms. He recommends doing so each morning after waking up, every single day, from September through March. “Adding bright light to patients’ regimens can literally turn their mood around.”

SAD Prevention

To stabilize your mood this fall and winter, focus on self-care activities to keep you active and engaged with the world around you. Plan fun activities in the colder weather, including physical activity. “If you work at an office, go outside at lunch to walk around in the sun,” Dr. Wolf suggests. “Always make a point to get out during daylight hours as much as possible.”

Monitor your mood and energy level, seeking time with friends and maintaining good habits that give you a boost. Get exercise most days and practice having a positive attitude. Remember to keep a healthy diet that includes fruits and vegetables; keep processed, sugary foods to a minimum. Taking care of yourself in a proactive way can help keep serious depression at bay this time of year.

If you start to feel depressed, tired, and isolated, get help right away. Our U.S. board-certified Teladoc physicians are here to talk it out with you so winter becomes a joy, not a burden.

References

1https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder
2https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml
3https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/what-circadian-rhythm

This portion of the Teladoc website occasionally offers health, fitness, and nutritional information and is provided for educational purposes only. You cannot rely on any information provided here as a substitute for or replacement of professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Teladoc cannot assure that the information contained on this site always includes the most recent findings or developments with respect to the particular subject matter covered.

If you ever have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional. Do not disregard, avoid, or delay obtaining medical or health-related advice from your healthcare professional because of something you may have read on this site. The use of any information provided on this site is solely at your own risk.

If you are in the United States and think you are having a medical or health emergency, call your healthcare professional, or 911, immediately.

The COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly evolving. While we are continuously reviewing and updating our content, some of the information in this article may not reflect the most up-to-date scientific information. Please visit the online resources provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and your local public health department to stay informed on the latest news, or reach out to Teladoc to speak with one of our board-certified physicians.