Shedding Light on Seasonal Affective Disorder:
Understanding, Treatment, and Support

Discover the science behind seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and effective treatment options. Explore light therapy, lifestyle adjustments, and more.

Written by the J. Flowers Health Institute’s multidisciplinary staff. Reviewed by James S. Flowers, Ph.D., LPC-S, CSAT.

Table of Contents

Overcoming Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

At J. Flowers Health Institute, we understand the complexities of seasonal affective disorder and its impact on everyday life. As experts in mental healthcare, we focus on personalized approaches that address both the symptoms and underlying causes of SAD.

For more information on SAD, as well as treatment opportunities, continue reading. For comprehensive mental health support, contact our J. Flowers Health Institute team today.

Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of mood disorder characterized by recurrent depressive episodes that coincide with the changing seasons.

Unlike traditional depression, seasonal affective disorder exhibits a distinct seasonal pattern. It starts in the fall and continues into the winter months, often sapping energy and causing mood swings.

About 5% of adults in the U.S. experience SAD. For most, it lasts approximately 40% of the year.1

Clinical Features of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Although seasonal affective disorder can manifest in various ways, specific clinical features often emerge during winter. Among them are:

Depressive Symptoms

People experience profound mood changes, such as persistent:
  • Sadness
  • Hopelessness
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Irritability 
  • Anxiety

Sleep Issues

Common sleep-related symptoms include:
  • An increased desire to sleep
  • Difficulty waking up 
  • Oversleeping beyond typical hours

Appetite Changes

Increased appetite, especially cravings for carbohydrates, is common in people experiencing SAD. This can lead to weight gain.

Energy Levels

A noticeable reduction in energy affects the ability to perform daily tasks. This often leads to fatigue and decreased activity levels.

Seasonal Timing

Symptoms emerge consistently during specific times of the year. They often start in late fall or early winter and improve with spring’s arrival.

Diagnostic Criteria of Seasonal Affective Disorder

The following criteria are followed for a clinical diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder:2
  • Evidence of temporal relationship: Symptoms must occur at the same time each year for at least two consecutive years. They should display a clear relationship to a particular season.
  • Outweigh nonseasonal episodes: Episodes related to a specific season should outnumber depressive episodes occurring at other times of the year.
  • Exclusion of other factors: These depressive episodes should not relate to other causes, such as seasonal employment changes or major life stressors that happen to coincide with specific seasons.

Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder

The exact causes of seasonal affective disorder are not fully understood. However, a number of factors may contribute to its development.
These include:

Reduced Sunlight Exposure

Shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter can disrupt the body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm. This can lead to feelings of depression.

Serotonin Levels

Serotonin is a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, which may trigger depression. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, leading to mood disorders.3

Melatonin Levels

The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Vitamin D

Lower levels of sunlight exposure during winter also reduce the natural production of vitamin D. Since vitamin D influences mood regulation, people may experience symptoms of seasonal affective disorder when receiving its low levels.

Genetic Predisposition

Genetic factors can influence how a person’s body reacts to changes in light and season. Those with a family history of depression or seasonal affective disorder may have a higher risk of developing the disorder.

Addressing Misconceptions and Stigma Surrounding Seasonal Affective Disorder

Some people mistakenly think SAD is just the “winter blues.” There is also a stigma surrounding seasonal affective disorder and other forms of depression.
A recent survey revealed that 20% of respondents would not disclose their depression to anyone. This silence often stems from fear of judgment or misunderstanding. As a result, most people hesitate to seek help for their mental health conditions.4
To change this perception, it is necessary to initiate educational and public awareness programs. These efforts can clarify that SAD is a clinically recognized disorder requiring proper treatment, not just a seasonal mood fluctuation.

Distinguishing SAD from Other Mood Disorders

SAD shares some symptoms with other mood disorders, making differential diagnosis essential. Here’s why carefully distinguishing SAD from other conditions is crucial:

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)

Both SAD and MDD can involve symptoms like:
  • Sadness
  • Loss of interest
  • Changes in sleep and appetite

However, MDD often doesn’t exhibit a clear seasonal pattern. A thorough evaluation can identify the presence or absence of this seasonal pattern.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder involves episodes of both depression and mania, which is not characteristic of SAD. A mental health professional will assess for the presence of manic or hypomanic episodes to rule out bipolar disorder.

Social Anxiety Disorder

SAD can sometimes manifest with social withdrawal, which may be confused with social anxiety disorder. However, social anxiety typically involves a persistent fear of social situations, while social withdrawal in SAD is often a result of low mood and fatigue.

A detailed evaluation can identify the underlying cause of social withdrawal.

Screening Tools and Assessment Protocols for SAD: Diagnostic Help at J. Flowers Health Institute

While there’s no single diagnostic test for seasonal affective disorder, various tools and protocols can aid in its identification. Our team at J. Flowers Health Institute can help you get the care you need by providing comprehensive screening tools, which may include:

SAD Seasonal Pattern Questionnaire

This questionnaire asks people to describe their symptoms and note whether they change with the seasons. It helps pinpoint when symptoms occur and their intensity. The results help in the identification of seasonal affective disorder.

Major Depressive Disorder Inventory (MDI)

The MDI was initiated for broader depression screening. However, it can also be useful for SAD by identifying symptoms that overlap with general depressive disorders but have a seasonal component.

Beck Depression Inventory (BDI)

This tool is commonly used to measure the severity of depression. For SAD, it can highlight seasonal variations in mood and behavior that are crucial for diagnosis.

Clinical Interview

A detailed interview with one of our mental health professionals focuses on the person’s history of depressive episodes. This helps assess if these episodes have a clear pattern related to specific seasons.

Medical Evaluation

A full medical assessment can help rule out other conditions that could mimic SAD. This often involves blood tests to check for any underlying medical problems that could affect mood.

Longitudinal Monitoring

Monitoring a person over an entire year provides comprehensive data on mood fluctuations. This tracking helps confirm whether depressive episodes consistently occur at the same time each year.

Other Diagnostic Tests Available at J. Flowers Health Institute

Depending on your needs and other potential symptoms, we also offer the following tests:
  • Chronic pain evaluation
  • Lifestyle assessment
  • Fitness and nutrition evaluation
  • Substance use disorder assessment
  • Executive blood panel
  • Spiritual assessment and counsel
  • Comprehensive report and action plan
It is important to seek medical attention if you or a loved one suspect seasonal affective disorder.

Treatment Options for Seasonal Affective Disorder: Light Therapy

Light therapy involves exposure to bright light that mimics natural sunlight. This exposure can influence the brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep, helping to reduce symptoms of SAD.
The therapy primarily affects serotonin levels, which are crucial for mood regulation. Enhanced light exposure increases serotonin, combating the depressive symptoms common in SAD.

What is the Protocol of Light Therapy?

Light therapy often involves sitting near a light therapy box that emits a very bright light (often around 10,000 lux), early in the morning.
Sessions generally last about 20 to 30 minutes daily throughout the fall and winter months, when sunlight is scarce.
It is crucial to start light therapy in the early stages of the autumn before SAD symptoms take hold. This can help prevent them from developing fully.

Efficacy of Light Therapy

Clinical studies show that light therapy can reduce the symptoms of SAD. The results of the therapy are noticeable within a few days to two weeks.5
For optimal results, physicians suggest combining light therapy with other treatment modules, such as psychotherapy or medications. However, this depends on the person’s needs and the severity of the symptoms.

Role of Antidepressants for Treating SAD

Medical health practitioners prescribe antidepressants to treat SAD when symptoms are severe. They help correct imbalances in brain chemicals that influence mood and emotional well-being.
These medications primarily target serotonin, a neurotransmitter that tends to decrease in people with SAD during the darker months.

Commonly Used Antidepressants for SAD

Some of the most common antidepressants include:
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): SSRIs are the most commonly prescribed type of antidepressant for SAD. Drugs like sertraline (Zoloft), fluoxetine (Prozac), and citalopram (Celexa) are frequently used.
  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): Another class of medications, such as venlafaxine (Effexor), can also be helpful in cases when the patient’s symptoms include fatigue and increased sleep.

Timing and Dosage of Antidepressants for SAD

It is suggested to start medications in the early fall before SAD symptoms begin and continue through winter and into the early spring. This helps prevent the onset of symptoms.
The dosage of these antidepressants depends on the person’s specific symptoms and response to the medication. Regular follow-ups with a healthcare provider are essential to adjust the dosage and monitor side effects.

Efficacy

It is important to remember that antidepressants are not a magic bullet. They can take several weeks to show effects. They should be only used when prescribed by a certified medical expert.

Side Effects

People who take antidepressants may also suffer from side effects, including:
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia
  • Increased appetite
Discussing these potential effects with a healthcare provider is crucial to managing them effectively.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for SAD

Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps people identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that may contribute to their depressive symptoms.
This technique involves recognizing and challenging negative thoughts related to the winter season, such as thoughts that the upcoming season will have short days or cold weather.
The therapy sessions encourage clients to take part in enjoyable and rewarding activities, even during the winter months. This helps to combat the lethargy and withdrawal that is often seen in people with seasonal affective disorder.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Protocols for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Cognitive-behavioral therapy often includes regular sessions (either weekly or bi-weekly). The sessions focus on a person’s specific goals, such as increasing exposure to natural light and maintaining a regular social schedule.
CBT for seasonal affective disorder often incorporates elements of light therapy. It advises clients on how to maximize natural light exposure through outdoor activities or the strategic use of light boxes.

Daily Routines and Behavioral Modifications to Mitigate SAD Symptoms

Even small tweaks to daily routines can make a big difference in managing seasonal affective disorder symptoms.
Here are some practical strategies to consider:
  • Establish a regular sleep schedule: Aim for consistent sleep and wake times to regulate your body’s internal clock. This will help improve your mood and energy levels.
  • Increase light exposure: Spend time outside during daylight hours, especially in the morning. If natural light is insufficient, consider using a light therapy box.
  • Stay active: Make sure to engage in regular physical activity during the winter seasons. Exercise releases endorphins, which can boost mood and improve well-being.
  • Create a supportive environment: Keep living and work spaces bright and airy. Open curtains and sit near windows to maximize exposure to natural light.
  • Prioritize social interactions: Stay connected with friends and family. Social support is crucial for managing depression.
  • Practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques: Incorporate mindfulness practices, such as meditation or yoga, which can help reduce stress and anxiety.

Nutritional Interventions and Dietary Considerations for SAD

J. Flowers Health Institute recognizes the importance of nutrition and diet in enhancing mental health. Here are some dietary considerations we may recommend for managing seasonal affective disorder:

Increase Vitamin D Intake

Since vitamin D availability from the sun is reduced in winter, make sure to supplement through diet and supplements.
This includes consuming:
  • Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel
  • Fortified foods
  • Egg yolks

Balance Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for brain health and may help alleviate depression symptoms. Some good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:
  • Fish oil
  • Flaxseeds
  • Walnuts
  • Chia seeds 

Monitor Carbohydrate Consumption

It’s common to crave carbohydrates when experiencing symptoms of SAD. However, maintain balance when taking carbs by focusing on complex carbs like whole grains, which provide sustained energy without the sugar crash.

Include Protein in Meals

Ensure that each meal includes a good source of protein. This can help maintain energy levels and regulate mood.
Good protein sources include:
  • Lean meats
  • Fish
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Dairy products

Stay Hydrated

Hydration is crucial for overall health and can influence mood and energy levels. Aim to drink at least eight glasses of water daily.

Consider the Timing of Meals

Eating at regular intervals can help stabilize blood sugar levels, which is important for maintaining consistent energy levels and mood. Avoid skipping meals, even if your appetite is affected by seasonal affective disorder.

Limit Caffeine and Alcohol

Reduce intake of caffeine and alcohol, which can affect sleep and mood. Both substances can potentially worsen SAD symptoms if consumed in excess.

Benefits of Exercise for Improving Symptoms Of SAD

Regular physical activity, especially outdoors, improves physical health and mental well-being. Exercise is important because it:
  • Helps reset the body’s internal clock
  • Reduces stress hormones like cortisol, promoting relaxation and decreasing anxiety
  • Boosts energy levels, counteracting the lethargy associated with SAD
  • Improves sleep patterns
  • Provides opportunities to socialize

Supportive Interventions for People with Seasonal Affective Disorder

While self-care strategies are crucial in managing SAD symptoms, feeling supported and connected can make a significant difference in recovery.

Group Therapy and Peer Support for SAD

Group therapy provides a platform for people with SAD to share their experiences. This helps reduce feelings of isolation. Seeing others face similar challenges can validate personal experiences and emotions.
These sessions are often led by therapists who guide discussions towards constructive coping strategies. Peer suggestions within the group can offer practical solutions that are not apparent in individual therapy.

Maintaining Social Connections and Interpersonal Relationships

Maintaining strong social connections is crucial for mental health, especially for those with SAD. Relationships provide emotional support and can offer a distraction from the daily struggles with depression.
People should also take part in social activities, as they can improve mood and increase feelings of self-worth. Positive interactions with others reinforce feelings of belonging and purpose, which are essential for combating SAD.

Addressing Co-Occurring Conditions and Comorbidities with Symptoms of SAD

Many people with SAD also experience other health issues like anxiety, major depression, and substance use disorders. Diagnosing and treating these comorbid conditions together enhances the treatment’s success, and our team at J. Flowers Health Institute is here to ensure you get the care you need for all of your symptoms.
People with co-occurring conditions should have a tailored plan that addresses both conditions at the same time. However, the treatment plan should be flexible to accommodate increased symptom severity in winter.

Strategies for Relapse Prevention and Long-Term Management

Here are some strategies to help prevent relapse and manage the symptoms of SAD:
  • Regular check-ups with mental health professionals help check progress and catch potential relapses early.
  • Keeping a mood diary can help people track their own symptoms and triggers.
  • Utilizing stress reduction techniques can contribute to sustained well-being.
  • Gaining knowledge about the cyclical nature of SAD to prepare for potential symptom fluctuations can be beneficial.
  • Proactive management strategies, such as beginning light therapy before winter starts, can prevent the onset of severe symptoms.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

We’re Here to Help You Thrive

If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of SAD, it is important to seek professional help. Our mental health professionals can diagnose and create a personalized treatment plan suitable for each person. Exploring these options can improve quality of life and well-being.

"At J. Flowers Health Institute, we collaborate closely with clients to develop personalized strategies for coping with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) during seasonal transitions. We begin by conducting a comprehensive assessment to understand each patient's unique symptoms, triggers, and coping mechanisms. Together, we explore a range of interventions tailored to their needs, such as light therapy, mindfulness practices, regular exercise, and dietary adjustments. Additionally, we provide education on SAD and its management, empowering clients to proactively monitor their symptoms and adjust their coping strategies as needed. Through this collaborative approach, we strive to support clients in navigating seasonal transitions with resilience and maintaining their mental well-being throughout the year."

Discover Holistic Approach to Treatment at J. Flowers Health Institute

J. Flowers Health Institute adopts a holistic approach to mental health by focusing on the whole person. Our institute integrates advanced diagnostics with personalized treatment plans, addressing psychological and physical health.

We have a team of experts skilled in diagnosing and treating a wide array of mental health disorders. With state-of-the-art technology and evidence-based practices, J. Flowers Health Institute ensures clients receive the most effective care tailored to their unique needs.

Connect with J. Flowers Health Institute Today

If you or someone you know is struggling with seasonal affective disorder, don’t hesitate to reach out to J. Flowers Health Institute. Explore our programs and see how we can help you on your journey to wellness.

Contact us today to learn more about our services so we can help you begin your recovery.