How to recognize seasonal affective disorder as winter approaches

Doctors are still learning exactly why it occurs but believe there’s a component of sunlight at this time of year

As seasons change, some people may also experience a change in their mood. Sometimes those changes could be associated with seasonal affective disorder.

According to Renae Vania Tomczak, president and CEO of Mental Health America of Greater Houston, the disorder, which is known by the acronym SAD, affects about 10 million people each year.

"So what it is, is a type of depression that's generally associated with late autumn and winter," Tomczak said. "As the days get cooler and the hours of daylight diminish, we often begin to feel the impact."

Symptoms of SAD

Sadness and depression are significant components of it, according to WebMD Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Whyte.

"It’s almost with animals hibernating," he said. "Those are the symptoms that you’re overeating, and you’re sleeping a lot. You’re withdrawing from others. You’ve lost interest, and you’re fatigued."

What causes it?

Doctors are still learning exactly why it occurs but believe there’s a component of sunlight at this time of year. The days are shorter, and they see greater incidence in more northern cities.

"A lot more happens in Alaska than it does in Florida," Whyte said. "There also could be a relation to melatonin. That’s one of the hormones that’s involved with sleep."

Some data suggests it could even be related to vitamin D.

Whyte said it also runs in families. So if your parents suffered from seasonal affective disorder, you’re more likely to as well.


One of the most effective treatments is light therapy.

"It doesn’t mean you turn all the lights on in your house and stand in front of them. That’s not a good idea. But there are these light boxes, and they’re actually 20 times more powerful than the light you have in your home," Whyte said.

Typically, someone will sit in front of the light box for about 30 to 45 minutes in the morning, which seems to have a good effect.

There’s also something called talk therapy, where doctors use psychotherapy to help address some symptoms of depression.

"There are medications that we use, something called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors," Whyte said. "And there are some ongoing studies about the use of vitamin D right now."

Self-care is important

Tomczak said caring for yourself also plays an important role in dealing with SAD. 

She recommended people spend time outside whenever the weather allows.

"Exercising regularly," Tomczak said. "That absolutely boosts your mood and also will help minimize symptoms."

Tomczak said incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet is also a good idea.

Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule will also help, according to Tomczak.