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The Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Beyond the Winter Blues

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Many of us might say that being less active in the winter is the normal cycle of life. A less peppy mood may be typical in this season, but for some people, cold weather and lack of sunshine bring on more than the usual winter blahs. It can bring on a form of clinical depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

If you live in a northern region, where skies are normally gray from October to March, it’s not uncommon for a lack of sunshine to make you feel depressed. Research has proved that brain chemistry is affected by bright light, although the exact process is not clear. Less than 1% of the population in sunny Florida report symptoms of SAD, yet about 10% of Alaskans report severe winter depression. It is a real illness that affects as many as 6 out of 100 people in the U.S. Even 10 to 20% more people may experience a milder form of SAD. It’s more common in women and usually first appears in one’s 20s. People with SAD typically feel better when spring comes, and then experience symptoms again in the late fall.

In general, we tend to eat and sleep more in the winter and experience more ups and downs during the shorter days. Winter may bring about weight gain and a lack of energy for people in general, but symptoms are more serious for SAD sufferers. The list below gives a range of symptoms that are clues to whether you have SAD. Not everyone who suffers from it experiences the same symptoms.
  • Cravings for sweets and starchy foods
  • Weight gain
  • Heavy feeling in the arms or legs
  • Noticeable drop in energy
  • Fatigue
  • Tendency to oversleep
  • Difficulty concentrating at work and at home
  • Irritability
  • Increased sensitivity to social rejection
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Hopelessness (including suicidal thoughts)
  • Constant agitation and anxiety Continued ›
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About The Author

Laura Bofinger Laura Bofinger
As a freelance writer, Laura uncovers some kind of inspiration every day when she writes about health and fitness.

Member Comments

  • MSDESERTRODENT I am the exact same. The crazy thing is that I live in the great white north of Michigan and winters are cold and snowy here and summers (according to others) are not that hot. I'm already dreading July in January. To be honest the minute it starts getting warm enough to contently rain instead of snow I start feeling kind of crappy. I like October - March. April can be OK. Anything past it usually makes me start thinking about October. - 1/21/2014 1:36:10 PM
  • KL6705
    I live in Ohio, and tonight the time changes...it's early November and the days are getting noticeably shorter. I've heard that Vitamin D can help with SAD, so I increase that in my daily vitamin routine. Let me know if that's wrong. - 11/2/2013 1:08:59 PM
  • I live in the Pacific NW but don't suffer from S.A.D. for which I am thankful. I have friends who do though. This article helps me to understand their condition better. Thank you for posting it. - 2/9/2013 12:45:51 PM
  • I have SAD as well... of course I do! I live in Seattle, where it is no coincidence that we have the highest antidepressant and caffeine use in the nation. Self medicating and prescriptioni medicating! LOL.

    I was part of a SAD study years ago, with a doc who is now considered an experet in the field. He explained that the little "reptilian" part of our brain, known as the pineal gland, becomes accomodated to a certain amount of light in our early years. If we grew up in a sunny clime and then move to a darker one, SAD may occur. Natives who live in an overcast environment in their early years do not suffer as much, or to the same degree as non-natives.

    What most of you do not realize is that SAD is a form of bipolar disorder. There is a relatively new term called Bipolar II --and it falls within that category. (Bipolar I is the sterotypical one with the wilder swings in mood, etc.)

    GET HELP!!! YOU DON'T NEED TO SUFFER! - 1/27/2013 6:27:45 PM
  • I live in Phoenix. Our more typical SAD season comes in the summer. Comes from being troglodytes in the heat. - 1/7/2013 11:33:24 PM
  • As a native Floridian, I COULD have had SAD last year or even the last 5+ years. But my theory is the symptoms were caused by a Vitamin D deficiency. Don't know how or why, but after finally paying for the test, my score was 13 out of 100, with optimum for health being 50 - 80.

    And I feel much happier since taking 10,000 mg D3 daily. We're testing again soon to see if I should continue that dosage. It will be interesting to see if all the symptoms return.

    Definitely something to look into. - 11/4/2012 7:10:07 PM
  • I suffered (and I DO mean suffered!) from this while living in Michigan year ago. I moved, first to Florida and then to Arizona and I can say that it is definitely real issue for some. I never tried the light treatment, I just high-tailed it for the sunniest place I could find and it worked. To anyone who thinks this might be an issue for them PLEASE seek help, it can be very serious! - 4/9/2012 1:26:09 PM
  • I'm a long time suffer of SAD and have been using a light box for many years. It really does help me to get through the winter months. I'm using it right now. :) - 12/14/2011 6:35:10 AM
  • I have SAD and also live in Saskatchewan, Canada. I found that the light box helps a lot, I have used it in the past winters and I am back to using it now. SAD is very real, it makes me eat more, sleep more, feel sluggish, feel depressed.

    As for the person who asked if it can happen in Summer, it can.

    - 12/9/2011 10:57:28 AM
  • You can see from my Spark name, I live in SUNNY ARIZONA....We have more sunshine here than just about anywhere in the US. I really have never experienced SAD. I am one that WOULD if I lived in areas of the world where Fall and Winter brought cloudy weather constantly as I am UP with the sun, and down when it sets, though not way down, still , would be down all the time, if NO sun for 6 months like in the very far north. Thankyou God for my sunshine!! - 11/12/2011 8:49:21 AM
  • I've been suffering with this for several years now. At first I took an antidepressant during the winter months but I stopped doing that because it seemed to be a hassle. So now I feel like I just suffer through it and so does my family unfortunately. It's even worse now because my husband doesnt work that much in the winter time, so we can't really do much in the winter either. So being stuck in the house, with the lights off to save energy is hard. Hopeing for a short winter!! - 11/7/2011 8:47:10 AM
  • I used to love in Washington and having winter from November-March could be quite depressing. The lack of sunlight and warmth was not to my liking. Here in the South it reminds me of where I grew up in Southern California and I didn't have SAD this past winter even though it was colder than normal. The difference was the sunlight and warmth. I never purchased a light box but living in a warmer climate has always been the cure for me.~ - 5/20/2011 5:04:48 AM
  • I live in Saskatchewan, Canada and we have snowy/grey months for six months out of the year. When I was still in high school I'd never even heard of SAD, so mum thought I was just being moody. The way it affects me (besides lethargy and anxiety) is that if it's cloudy for too many days in a row I'll start to cry over any little thing. It doesn't matter if it's not something I'd normally cry about or not (once I started to cry because I had been planning to buy a toy watch for someone and it was sold out).
    It was really great getting to University and away from small town mentality. Someone actually recognized what I had and it helps to have people around you to support you.

    One thing that I've found to work when I start to feel the symptoms coming is a vitamin called 'Sunshine in a bottle'. It's made specifically for SAD treatment and has D, C, and a wack load of other nutrients. I found it at a Sangsters (health food store in Canada). - 3/19/2011 2:23:49 AM
  • Light makes SUCH a difference. I grew up in a climate that was COLD in winter, but the SUN came out often (even though it was -3 degrees). Now I live in a more temperate climate, but one that is GRAY (no sign of light/SUN) most days. It really does affect me. I would say that half of the items on the checklist in the article apply to me. - 11/27/2010 2:47:58 PM
  • 1BEACHWALKER
    I have had SAD for years and it still is tough to deal. with The last few days leading up to today, the weather was cloudy/rainy (you don't get too many of those in Florida) and suddenly I felt like I needed more sleep, even with that I was dragging all day. Felt like I wanted to eat the paint of the walls (those cravings hit) and just felt so depressed. Nothing I did helped and it dawned on me -SAD is back! I hate it. But, reading this article and sitting under my light and reading the comments has helped a little. I love Spark People! - 11/4/2010 11:39:04 PM

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