Seasonal Affective Disorder—or SAD—might be one of the most appropriate acronyms in medical history. It’s a depressive condition that reflects the ultimate battle between light and darkness—sunshine hidden by clouds, and sunsets happening quicker and sooner than ever. As a result, symptoms usually start in the fall, and subside in early spring or summer.
While it isn’t uncommon for us to mourn the passing of summer and grumble about the upcoming winter, SAD is much deeper than a general discomfort or annoyance. Seasonal depression can often bring intense mood swings and serious side effects, impacting health, everyday life, and even personal or working relationships.
Although it is one of the most common forms of depression, it is also one of the most misunderstood. Here are 25 things that you probably didn’t know about SAD:
SAD affects nearly ten million Americans
That’s a ton of people. If we look at percentages, this means that 4-6% of the population is seriously affected by the changing of the seasons, both emotionally and physically. Estimates project that as much as an additional 20% suffer from mild symptoms of SAD.
Seasonal depression usually happens between ages 20 and 30
As if navigating through your twenties wasn’t difficult enough, SAD is much more likely to occur throughout these years. It’s a difficult decade of learning how to survive on your own, pay bills, manage debts, and maneuver through changing relationships with family, friends, and significant others.
With so much natural stress and so many changes blanketing this decade, perhaps it makes sense that SAD is much more likely to rear its seasonal head for the first time.
SAD is more common in women
This isn’t terribly surprising, as women are much more prone to any type of depression than men. There are a few key reasons for this: women are genetically predisposed for depression, and they also have greater fluctuations in hormones.
Studies have shown that women are much more invested in the relationships around them, as well as in their own emotions. With constantly changing hormones—here’s looking at you, birth control—and a natural inclination to invest in emotions, it’s no wonder that depression shows up more often.
Seasonal depression is related to daylight, not temperature
There are compelling studies that point to levels of daylight as a key factor in SAD. As sunlight decreases, melatonin production inside the body increases. This is what helps you feel sleepy and relaxed at night. Unfortunately, too much melatonin can cause feelings of lethargy and depression, often opening the mental door for seasonal depression.
Melatonin levels tend to stay at steady levels for most people—but those affected by SAD have been shown to have substantially higher melatonin levels through seasonal changes.
Sunlight increases serotonin
The difference between occasional “winter blues” and SAD is often chemical. Lack of sunlight not only influences melatonin production, but it also influences serotonin. As a mood-boosting neurotransmitter, serotonin is what signals us to feel a little happier. Summer sunshine not only feels good, but it chemically makes us feel good, too.
Take that sunlight away, and serotonin levels start to drop, resulting in depression.
Low levels of Vitamin D don’t help
Sunlight provides our bodies with Vitamin D, which could be instrumental in regulating mood and battling depression. One study showed that increased intake of Vitamin D created measurable improvements in symptoms amongst depression patients.
Of course, once the seasons start ebbing and flowing, sunlight levels fluctuate. As sunlight decreases, so does Vitamin D. This deficiency probably explains a general sensation of feeling a bit down during the winter, including exacerbated symptoms of depression for those with SAD.
Symptoms can be severe
The most common symptoms that come with SAD are: sadness, fatigue, a lack of motivation, frequent headaches, and mood changes. Weight fluctuations and body aches are also commonly-reported amongst those who suffer from SAD.
There are certainly individual levels of severity, but these symptoms can quickly become debilitating, inhibiting a person’s ability to function properly in their personal, social, and work lives.
SAD may be more than seasonal depression
For some, Seasonal Affective Disorder shows up as a by-product of larger issues, such as clinical depression or bipolar disorder. If moods are regularly cycling through anxiety and depression, SAD may signify something deeper.
It can be difficult to determine whether SAD is an affliction on its own or in conjunction with other issues, so open communication with a doctor is important.
It’s not a great joke to use
It might be easy to casually comment on recently acquired seasonal depression as you would comment on a recently acquired hairstyle—but it’s not great. For those with SAD, it’s often a very serious, debilitating condition.
It’s really all about manners, being polite, saying nice things, and not blaming SAD for waking up late that one day you were supposed to meet your mom for brunch.
There are tons of ways to treat SAD
Once upon a time, a long time ago, light therapy was exclusively used to alleviate depression and lethargy due to SAD. The theory is good: use artificial sunlight to boost hormone production of serotonin and decrease melatonin. Light therapy is still a thing—which might be particularly good news for anyone who enjoys a few minutes in a tanning bed.
Treatment options have since expanded to antidepressant medications, cognitive behavioral therapy, or simply talking it out.
Seasonal Affective Disorder takes time to diagnose
Nowadays, we’ve come to expect nearly instantaneous diagnosis for health-related issues. If you have strep throat, you want to know immediately so you can plan out your ice cream intake, which certainly makes sense.
SAD, however, takes much more time than a simple lab test. In fact, most people who suffer through SAD are told to wait two cycles—two years—until they can be diagnosed.
Tons of mood disorders include SAD
While there are plenty of cases where SAD is experienced on its own, there is an overwhelming number of people who experience additional mood disorders along with SAD. In fact, an estimated one-third of SAD patients suffer from at least one additional mood disorder.
It doesn’t have to revolve around winter
It is rare, but some cases of SAD have been reported to happen during the springtime or the summertime.
While evidence for sunlight contributing to SAD is strong, there’s no accounting for different chemical compositions. Everyone is uniquely put together, and sometimes that means that seasonal depression can jump in at any time.
Seasonal changes may affect other disorders, too
While Seasonal Affective Disorder is characterized by depression that coincides with seasonal changes, some studies suggest that a broader range of mental illnesses may follow similar patterns. Anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, schizophrenia, ADHD, and anorexia have all demonstrated incremental changes along with the seasons.
Rates of SAD are higher in northern states
This might not be all that surprising, since a northern concept of winter is much different than a southern. While the southern sun still shines and the temperatures are warm even into November, everyone in the north has been wearing jackets and boots for months. No one wants to be outside because it’s cold, so no one is getting any sun.
Northern states are also typically cloudier than southern states, making for a sunless, chilly plunge into winter. Which, unluckily enough for northerners, usually happens in the fall.
People who suffer from SAD probably aren’t coming to your party
One of the most frustrating symptoms for those suffering from seasonal depression is the inability to socialize. For some, the thought of social interaction can create a rush of anxiety, even if they just spent the entire summer surrounded by friends. For others, lethargy and sadness may create an overwhelming desire to avoid social functions altogether.
If someone you know and love has Seasonal Affective Disorder, patience and understanding is key. They’re probably not coming to your Christmas party, and it definitely doesn’t have anything to do with you personally.
Seasonal depression affects intimacy
A common side effect of SAD—and all illnesses related to depression—is a decrease in or total loss of libido. Emotionally, depression includes feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and a lack of self-confidence. Chemically, lowered neurotransmitters (like serotonin) impact the ability to interpret happiness or pleasure.
Chemically and emotionally, it isn’t hard to see how SAD symptoms do very little to facilitate sexual contact. In fact, sometimes any physical contact is too much for those with SAD.
There may be genetic links to SAD
There have been studies conducted that suggest a genetic link to SAD. This may happen because of genetic mutations inside the eye that decrease sensitivity to light.
Another segment of research claims that there may be a connection to gene mutations that cause unusual sleep patterns and SAD. Thanks, parental heredity!
Seasonal depression can result in carb overload
Overeating is a common element with depressive disorders, but seasonal depression can lead to specific food cravings—namely, carbohydrates and starches. Comfort food tends to do exactly as promised, but it also leads to unhealthy habits.
It certainly doesn’t help that SAD commonly kicks in around annual holiday feasts, either.
Stigmas around SAD are diminishing
Seasonal Affective Disorder was once scorned and looked down upon. In recent years, understanding of the causes and symptoms of SAD has substantially increased. As a result, the stigma that once surrounded SAD is rapidly diminishing.
This may be a result of the extreme relatability of the disorder. Honestly, who doesn’t find themselves getting a little sad when the sun starts to disappear before 6pm?
Diet can make SAD symptoms more tolerable
Remember how Vitamin D and serotonin levels can affect seasonal depression? As it turns out, adding nutrient-rich foods into your diet can naturally trigger “happy” chemicals. Eggs, tuna, and fortified milk all have high levels of Vitamin D. Healthy carbs, like unprocessed oats or pulse pasta can increase serotonin levels.
Additionally, Omega-3 fatty acids can increase serotonin, so those who suffer from SAD might benefit from stocking up on spinach, walnuts, and salmon.
Exercise can help
Moving around and working up a sweat can really improve SAD. Exercise releases endorphins, and these chemicals interact with the body to trigger positive, energizing feelings. For those who suffer from SAD, exercise is often the last thing on their minds—after all, it involves fighting back the lethargy and the depressed feelings to get up and go to the gym.
Doing a few exercises at home can boost mood levels and start fighting back symptoms of SAD. Rooms with tons of sun are phenomenal choices—the more sunlight, the better!
Stress is harder to deal with
When someone suffers from SAD, dealing with the symptoms often cause more than enough stress. Once additional stressors are involved—like an upcoming project, changes at work, or your brother using your car again without asking—then stress levels skyrocket.
While most people can manage stress relatively well, studies have shown that those who suffer from SAD struggle much more with stress management.
Prevention is possible
This is not to say that SAD can be entirely prevented, but rather that it can be managed. As a relatively predictable mood disorder, SAD can be planned for. Light therapy can begin before symptoms arrive, stress management techniques can be implemented, and nutrient-rich diets can begin ahead of time.
Even better, a seasonal trip to a sunnier climate can work wonders in preventing the sudden onset of SAD.
People with Seasonal Affective Disorder are wonderful human beings
Those who are affected with SAD are much more likely to pay attention to emotions—not just theirs, but the emotions of others. Empathy, consideration, and understanding all go hand-in-hand with those who are finely aligned with emotional tendencies.
These are truly wonderful features for any human being to have, and though they can certainly be frustrating for those with SAD, it’s a comfort to know that these are a few of the best personality traits.