The Truth About Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Written By: Melissa Fiorenza

Around the same time every year, there’s a chance you’ve heard people around you say they have seasonal affective disorder—whether or not they’ve actually been diagnosed with it. If we’re being totally honest, I start to say it about myself every year when the fall starts to fade into cold, dreary winter, but I’ve never sought treatment specifically for SAD. Do you do the same?

Recently, I asked a couple of docs some questions about SAD. And while this article is by no means a self-diagnosis aide, it was definitely informative for me. Read on.

How can someone know if they really do have SAD? What are the signs of SAD?

Generally, if someone feels depressed at the same time each year (most often during the late fall and winter months, but it can also happen in the summer) for a period of two years, there is a strong possibility that they have SAD, says Dr. Jeff Nalin, PsyD, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and executive director at Paradigm Treatment Center in Malibu.

“Signs are the same as general depression: feelings of hopelessness, despair, sadness, lethargy, changes in sleeping or eating habits,” he says, “but they differ from general depression, as the seasonal depression only occurs during certain months.”

Are there different levels of SAD? For instance, someone who notices they just hate the winters and feel like they're in a slump, but are generally fine—to people who really do need be medicated for it?

“SAD is not a different disorder than depression,” he explains. “It is depression that happens seasonally. And as with depression, in general, there are different levels of severity and in some cases medication helps alleviate or manage the symptoms.”

At what point should someone see a doctor? How is it diagnosed?

Typically, if we practice self-care by eating well, staying physically active and exercising, as well as exposing ourselves to as much sunlight as possible and we are still feeling depressed, it may be best to see a doctor, says Dr. Nalin.

He explains: “Depression is normally diagnosed by screening for specific symptoms, including daily moods, behaviors, etc. Many of us experience depression in different ways, so doctors often use screening tools to help diagnose. The doctor will verify the number of symptoms and duration of symptoms, as well as how interfering these symptoms are in our daily lives, etc. To be diagnosed as having SAD, these symptoms need to occur during the same months of the year over a minimum of a two-year period, with no feelings of depression during the other months.”

What causes SAD?

Turns out, we don’t really know the physiology of SAD. Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, a Medical Advisory Board Member with the Nutritional Magnesium Association and author of Hormone Balance told me: “It could be that a lack of Vitamin D, magnesium, B vitamins, and essential fatty acids is the underlying cause of SAD. With all those variables and the potential for lesser or greater deficiencies in each individual, there is the potential for varying levels of SAD. Serotonin imbalance is said to be a possible cause but magnesium is necessary to make serotonin.”

Why do some people have SAD, and others don’t?

This can be related to their level of nutrient deficiencies and specifically Vitamin D and magnesium, keeping in mind that magnesium converts vitamin D into its active form—so you just do not get the benefits of Vitamin D without enough magnesium in a bio-available form, explains Dr. Dean. “Not all forms of magnesium are easily absorbed by the body. Magnesium citrate powder mixed with hot or cold water is easily absorbed and can be put into a water bottle sipped throughout the day.”

Those who experience SAD tend to live in northern climates where the days are shorter and darker, adds Dr. Nalin. “In addition, those who have a family history of depression are more prone to developing it.” He also says, in alignment with Dr. Dean, that there is evidence showing that some people who have SAD may produce less Vitamin D, which is connected to serotonin production.

Your SAD tip sheet

So, still think you’re dealing with seasonal affective disorder? Here are the options Dr. Nalin shared for managing SAD.

Exposure to natural sunlight.

Get outside as much as possible, especially when it's sunny. “This will help our bodies to produce serotonin, which will improve our moods and help reset our body clocks. Early morning is the best time to expose ourselves to the sun, helping to get that normal rhythm back on track,” he says.

Red light therapy.

When there is just not enough natural light, red light therapy has been shown to be effective at helping to overcome SAD in some cases, he says. It is believed that sitting in front of a red light, helps to increase the amount of neurotransmitters and reenergize those of us with SAD. (Where to look for red lights: they’re readily available on Amazon and other online e-commerce sites.)

Practice self care.

Eating well and exercising are important to our overall well-being, including our mental health, he says. “When we are stressed or unhappy, we have a tendency to overeat or even forget to eat. When we are feeling stressed or down, the stress hormone, cortisol, is released, which can make us crave greasy, unhealthy foods.” So pack your body with nutrient-rich foods—and be sure to exercise— and you’ll be better equipped to deal with SAD.

Spend time with a pet.

As you likely know, pets are proven mood enhancers.

Get social.

Instead of giving in to the temptation to isolate ourselves, spend some fun time with friends and family, suggests Dr. Nalin. “Having fun increases our endorphins thus improving our mood.”


If feelings of sadness are pervasive, volunteering may be worth considering, he adds. “Studies have shown that when we help others, our brain releases endorphins.”

Your next stop: 30 Days of Self Care. Take a look.