What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
By: Deanna McMichael
Published: February 1, 2024

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

As winter starts to descend and daylight hours decrease, many individuals find themselves grappling with a sense of lethargy, mood swings, and a noticeable dip in overall well-being. In most instances this is a case of being affected by the ‘winter blues’ sometimes this can impact how someone thinks, behaves and feels. This is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a subtype of depression that typically occurs during the fall and winter months when daylight hours diminish.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression characterized by recurrent depressive episodes that align with the colder seasons, most commonly the fall and winter months. Individuals with SAD experience symptoms similar to major depressive disorder, including persistent sadness, changes in sleep patterns, a decline in mood and altered appetite. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) typically manifests in two main patterns:

Winter-pattern SAD: This is the most common type of SAD, characterized by depressive episodes that occur during the fall and winter months when daylight hours are shorter. Symptoms typically begin in the fall, worsen throughout the winter, and improve in the spring or summer when daylight increases.

Summer-pattern SAD: While less common, some individuals experience SAD symptoms that begin in the spring or summer and improve during the fall or winter. This reverse pattern of SAD is characterized by depressive episodes coinciding with increased daylight and warmer temperatures.

The condition follows a consistent seasonal pattern, with symptoms typically worsening during the darker and colder months. Reduced exposure to natural sunlight is believed to be a key factor influencing circadian rhythms and neurotransmitter levels. Diagnosing SAD requires a two-year history of seasonal depressive episodes that impact daily functioning.

Signs and Symptoms

Individuals with Seasonal Affective Disorder experience a range of symptoms similar to major depressive disorder, but with a distinctive seasonal pattern. These symptoms include, but are not limited to:

Persistent Low Mood: Individuals with SAD often struggle with a persistent and overwhelming sense of sadness that lingers throughout the day. Experiencing this emotional strain can make completing simple tasks seem daunting.

Low Energy and Fatigue: Having a noticeable decrease in energy levels and an increased propensity for fatigue are hallmark symptoms of SAD. Individuals with SAD may also find it challenging to muster up enough motivation to engage in daily activities.

Changes in Sleep Patterns: Disruptions in sleep are common, with individuals experiencing either hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness) or insomnia (difficulty falling or staying asleep). These changes further contribute to the overall sense of lethargy.

Difficulty Concentrating: Cognitive functions may be impaired, leading to difficulties concentrating on tasks, maintaining focus, or making decisions. This can impact professional as well as personal aspects of life.

Irritability and Social Withdrawal: SAD can cause heightened irritability, which makes engaging in social interactions more challenging. Individuals with SAD may withdraw from social activities, further exacerbating these feelings of isolation.

Appetite Changes: Some individuals may experience changes in appetite, which can lead to physical changes. Changes in appetite include increased carbohydrate cravings and changes in food preferences. These shifts in eating patterns contribute to the complexity of SAD, especially when considering its overlap with eating disorders.

There are other less common symptoms that vary depending on the individual. It is important to diagnose each case individually, recognizing the prevalence of these symptoms is crucial for timely intervention and effective management.

How to Prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder

Preventing SAD involves proactive measures to mitigate the impact of seasonal changes on mood and well-being. Key strategies include light therapy to mimic natural sunlight exposure, engaging in outdoor activities for daylight exposure, maintaining a balanced diet rich in nutrients, practicing stress management techniques like relaxation exercises and hobbies, ensuring good sleep hygiene, and seeking professional help if needed. These efforts aim to regulate circadian rhythms, boost mood, reduce stress, and promote overall mental and emotional wellness during the darker months of the year.

Seasonal Affective Disorder and Eating Disorders

While Seasonal Affective Disorder and eating disorders may seem distinct, they share several commonalities. Both conditions have complex origins involving genetic predispositions, neurotransmitter imbalances, and societal pressures. The impact of seasonal changes on eating habits is a crucial point of intersection. Winter months can influence food preferences and alter mood and appetite, potentially exacerbating disordered eating behaviors.

Shared Risk Factors: Genetic predispositions play a role in both Seasonal Affective Disorder and eating disorders. Individuals who have a family history of either condition may be more susceptible. Neurotransmitter imbalances, particularly involving serotonin, are implicated in both depression and certain eating disorders. Societal pressures regarding body image further compound the risk of eating disorders and SAD.

Impact of Seasonal Changes on Eating Habits: Seasonal changes can profoundly affect eating habits, impacting both quantity and quality of food consumed. The reduced availability of fresh produce may lead to diet changes that could affect nutrient intake. Moreover, the decreased exposure to natural light can disrupt circadian rhythms, affecting sleep patterns and, consequently, appetite regulation.

While SAD is a challenge on its own, there’s a growing recognition of its intersection with eating disorders, creating a complex web of challenges for those affected.

Seeking Professional Help

The importance of seeking professional help cannot be overstated. Therapists, psychiatrists, and nutritionists play key roles in the treatment of both Seasonal Affective Disorder and eating disorders. An integrated treatment approach addresses the interconnected nature of these conditions, offering individuals a comprehensive path towards healing.

The Role of Therapists, Psychiatrists, and Dietitians


Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Therapists play a crucial role in providing psychological support and interventions. CBT is particularly effective in helping individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns associated with the depressive symptoms of SAD and the distorted beliefs about body image and food in eating disorders.

Mindfulness-Based Approaches: Therapists may incorporate mindfulness-based approaches to promote self-awareness and coping mechanisms. These techniques can enhance emotional regulation, which can reduce the impact of seasonal changes on mood and help individuals manage symptoms associated with eating disorders.


Medication Management: Psychiatrists specialize in the prescription and management of medications. In the context of SAD, antidepressant medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may be prescribed to alleviate depressive symptoms. Psychiatrists will also consider the potential impact of medications on appetite and weight, consulting with a dietitian.

Mood Stabilization: For individuals with co-occurring SAD and eating disorders, mood stabilization is crucial. Psychiatrists work to find a balance between managing depressive symptoms and avoiding medications that might trigger or worsen their eating disorder.


Balanced Meal Plans: Dietitians play a vital role in addressing the nutritional aspects of both SAD and eating disorders. They work collaboratively with individuals to develop balanced meal plans, considering the impact of seasonal changes on dietary choices and nutrient intake.

Education and Support: Dietitians provide education on the importance of nourishing the body and mind. They offer ongoing support to help individuals establish a healthy relationship with food, addressing any nutritional deficiencies that may exacerbate depressive symptoms.

If you or a loved one is looking for a treatment center with an integrated approach to treating both SAD and eating disorders, we encourage you to contact Koru Spring in Jacksonville, Florida. Receiving treatment in Jacksonville, Florida’s warm and sunny climate can have a profound impact on individuals with co-occurring Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and eating disorders. The abundant sunlight and mild winters in Jacksonville provide a stark contrast to the darker and colder environments typically associated with SAD onset. The increased exposure to natural sunlight year-round can help regulate circadian rhythms, improve mood, and alleviate depressive symptoms commonly experienced by individuals with SAD during the winter months.

Koru Spring has an open campus which features an on-site spa, wellness center, and meditation labyrinth surrounded by oak trees – all creating a tranquil environment for healing. With the right team and the best environment, you can get on the path towards healing and recovery.

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