How to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs during a particular time of year. Symptoms usually appear when one season ends and another begins.

Most people suffer from SAD in the fall and winter, when shorter days and less sunlight exposure can cause the body to produce too much melatonin (a hormone that controls our sleep/wake cycles) and not enough serotonin (a chemical in the brain that affects mood).

About 10 to 20 percent of Americans suffer from a mild form of seasonal affective disorder known as the winter blues. Symptoms of the winter blues include:

  • irritability
  • fatigue
  • increased appetite for starches and sweets
  • weight gain
  • oversleeping

Self-managing the fall/winter blues

If you think you may have the fall and winter blues, try these tips to increase your energy and improve your mood:

  • Get more sunlight. Sit by a window when you're indoors or go for walks in the morning when the sun is rising. Do whatever you can to get more sunlight every day.

  • Exercise often. Exercise can reduce your risk for depression. Try to get at least 30 minutes of aerobic physical activity three to five days a week.

  • Eat a healthy diet. Eat mostly lean meats, fruits and vegetables to avoid weight gain from the winter blues.

  • Spend time with the ones you love. Do activities you enjoy with the ones you love. It will bring you happiness and combat feelings of loneliness.

  • Try alternative therapies. Alternative therapies like acupuncture, guided imagery, massage therapy, meditation and yoga may improve your mood.

When to see your doctor

Talk to your primary care provider if your depression is severe or lasts two or more winters. It's important to seek treatment for moderate to severe seasonal affective disorder, as it's just like any other form of depression. Severe symptoms of SAD include:

  • hopelessness
  • loss of interest in work or activities
  • social withdrawal
  • using alcohol or drugs to cope
  • thoughts of suicide

 Your doctor can diagnose seasonal affective disorder and prescribe treatment. Treatment options for moderate to severe cases of SAD include phototherapy, antidepressant medication, psychotherapy, and certain herbal and dietary supplements.

If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, reach out to a primary care physician near you for help.