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Seasonal Depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder)

Seasonal depression, also called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a type of depression. It’s triggered by the change of seasons and most commonly begins in late fall. Symptoms include feelings of sadness, lack of energy, loss of interest in usual activities, oversleeping and weight gain. Treatments include light therapy, talk therapy and antidepressants.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression. According to the American Psychiatric Association, SAD is officially classified as major depressive disorder with seasonal patterns. So if you have seasonal affective disorder, you have mood changes and symptoms of depression, including:

Sadness, feeling depressed most of the day, almost every day.


Carbohydrate cravings and weight gain.

Extreme fatigue and lack of energy.

Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness.

Trouble concentrating.

Feeling irritated or agitated.

Limbs (arms and legs) that feel heavy.

Loss of interest in usually pleasurable activities, including withdrawing from social activities.

Sleeping problems (usually oversleeping).

Thoughts of death or suicide.

People who have summer SAD may experience:

Agitation and restlessness.


Decreased appetite and weight loss.

Episodes of violent behavior.

Trouble sleeping (insomnia)

What causes seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

Researchers don’t know exactly what causes seasonal depression. Lack of sunlight may trigger the condition if you’re prone to getting it. The theories suggest:

Biological clock change: When there’s less sunlight, your biological clock shifts. This internal clock regulates your mood, sleep and hormones. When it shifts, you’re out of step with the daily schedule you’ve been used to and can’t adjust to changes in daylight length.

Brain chemical imbalance: Brain chemicals called neurotransmitters send communications between nerves. These chemicals include serotonin, which contributes to feelings of happiness. If you’re at risk of SAD, you may already have less serotonin activity. Since sunlight helps regulate serotonin, a lack of sunlight in the winter can make the situation worse. Serotonin levels can fall further, leading to depression.

Vitamin D deficiency: Your serotonin level also gets a boost from vitamin D. Since sunlight helps produce vitamin D, less sun in the winter can lead to a vitamin D deficiency. That change can affect your serotonin level and your mood.

Melatonin boost: Melatonin is a chemical that affects your sleep patterns and mood. The lack of sunlight may stimulate an overproduction of melatonin in some people. You may feel sluggish and sleepy during the winter.

Negative thoughts: People with SAD often have stress, anxiety and negative thoughts about the winter. Researchers aren’t sure if these negative thoughts are a cause or effect of seasonal depression.

How is seasonal affective disorder (SAD) diagnosed?

If you have symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), don’t try to diagnose yourself. See your healthcare provider for a thorough evaluation. You may have another reason for your depression. Many times, seasonal affective disorder is part of a more complex mental health issue.

Your provider may refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist. These mental health professionals will ask you about your symptoms. They’ll consider your pattern of symptoms and decide if you have seasonal depression or another mood disorder. You may need to fill out a questionnaire to determine if you have SAD.

What tests will I need to diagnose seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

There’s no blood test or scan to diagnose seasonal depression. Still, your provider may recommend testing to rule out other conditions that cause similar symptoms, including testing your thyroid to make sure it’s functioning properly.

What are the criteria for a seasonal affective disorder (SAD) diagnosis?

Your provider may diagnose you with SAD if you have:

Symptoms of major depression.

Depressive episodes that occur during specific seasons for at least two consecutive years.

Depressive episodes happening more frequently during a specific season than during the rest of the year.

How is seasonal affective disorder (SAD) treated?

Your provider will talk to you about treatment options. You may need a combination of treatments, including:

Light therapy: Bright light therapy, using a special lamp, can help treat SAD.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of talk therapy. Research has shown it effectively treats SAD, producing the longest-lasting effects of any treatment approach.

Antidepressant medication: Sometimes, providers recommend medication for depression, either alone or with light therapy.

Spending time outdoors: Getting more sunlight can help improve your symptoms. Try to get out during the day. Also, increase the amount of sunlight that enters your home or office.

Vitamin D: A vitamin D supplement may help improve your symptoms.

Seasonal depression happens with every season change. Not only summer to winter. It is a vicious circle you keep on repeating every season.


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