How to Tell if You’re Suffering From Seasonal Affective Disorder—And What to Do About It

How to Tell if You're Suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder—And What to Do About It

We all experience days when we’re low on energy, feeling blah, or just wishing we could stay in bed all day. But if you find those days increasing in frequency as cooler weather approaches and the days get shorter and darker (and then feeling better months later with the start of spring), you might not just be having a series of bad days. You could be experiencing seasonal affective disorder.

While experts are not quite sure what causes seasonal affective disorder, the prevailing theory is that a vitamin D deficiency in the body disrupts the circadian rhythms. In turn, levels of melatonin increase, making us feel tired, while serotonin, a “happy hormone,” decreases.

This vitamin D deficiency is typically more pronounced in fall and winter months, when sunshine is at a premium and people typically spend less time outdoors. But seasonal affective disorder (also known as SAD, an appropriate acronym) isn’t just a bad case of the winter blues. It’s actually a type of depression that affects about half a million Americans each year—three out of four of whom are female.

SAD is different from other types of clinical depression is the fact that it rears its head seasonally. But there are some seasonal affective disorder symptoms that are similar to those of other types of depression:

  • Fatigue, including feelings of lethargy, excessive tiredness, or exhaustion.
  • Insomnia and disturbances in sleeping patterns or sleep quality ­— which leads to even more feelings of fatigue.
  • Trouble focusing or difficulty processing thoughts.
  • A decreased sex drive and a loss of interest in activities.
  • A change in appetite, which can range from a loss of interest in eating to cravings for sugar and carbohydrates.

So, how do you know if someone is experiencing SAD or a more persistent from of depression? It usually lies in when depressive episodes begin—with late September bringing the first signs of symptoms, December through February being the most difficult months to manage, and April ushering in the beginnings of relief.

Unfortunately, because SAD is so dependent on the seasons, it’s hard for professionals to diagnose after just one winter and typically requires at least two to three years of episodes before a doctor can conclusively label it SAD. But you don’t need to spend half the year feeling like crap — try these natural seasonal affective disorder remedies.

Get a light box

If you find that your SAD symptoms are really severe, you might want to invest in a light box. These give you exposure to bright, artificial light, which has been proven to help people with seasonal affective disorder.

About 15 minutes to half hour of light therapy are recommended—preferably in the morning so that your sleep cycles aren’t disrupted and you can enjoy the benefits throughout the day. Most people see improvements after just a few days and get the full benefits after two weeks or so.

Supplement with vitamin D

Not only is vitamin D likely a large part of the SAD equation, but it’s also one of the most common deficiencies. Give yourself a boost by taking a supplement and eating foods that are naturally rich in the vitamin, like wild-caught salmon, eggs, and sardines.

And don’t skip one of the best sources of vitamin D—sunshine! Though it can be tricky to catch during winter months, bundling up and taking advantage of any sunlight you can get will really improve how you’re feeling. Go out for a lunchtime walk or take a stroll on the weekends to soak up the sunlight when possible.

Steer clear of sugar

People suffering from SAD often crave sugar and refined carbohydrates, but, unfortunately, turning to these foods will make you feel even worse. Mood swings, energy crashes, and irritability all accompany these foods—and that’s without accounting for standard SAD symptoms.

Instead of relying on baked goods and sugary treats to lift your mood, turn to healing foods like leafy greens and high-quality lean proteins. When you do get the urge for sweets, opt for fruits instead, and choose complex, whole-grain carbohydrates like sweet potatoes and brown rice when you need a carb fix.

Reach out for help

Finally, depression is incredibly difficult to handle, whether it strikes seasonally or lingers year-round. Getting in touch with a therapist to talk things out can really help, particularly if you can find someone who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of psychotherapy has been found to be just as, or even more, effective than light box therapy, and it focuses on helping people learn skills to cope with the negative thoughts they have during depressive episodes.