As winter rolls around, the days get shorter and nights longer. With less sunlight and colder weather, many close up into warm homes, only to venture out into the frozen tundra for the necessities like groceries and for work and school. With the changing of the seasons, there may also be a changing of mood. A feeling of deep sadness may set in, hovering over like a dark cloud. It tends to stay longer than sadness – and it only occurs with the transitions of the seasons.

These “winter blues” are a treatable clinical condition called seasonal affective disorder, which is a type of depression experienced by some people during the fall and winter months when there is less natural light. 

Staff psychotherapist Nicole Frie describes SAD as “a form of major depression with the essential feature of onset and remission during specific times of the year. Most typically the episodes begin in the fall and winter and diminish in the spring. SAD would need to occur at least two years in a row to be officially diagnosed.”

Frie works at CentraCare Clinic in Sauk Centre alongside primary care providers, helping people by teaching them skills to manage their stress and make changes in their lives.

Frie said that SAD shares similar symptoms with depression such as loss of interest in activities, feeling sluggish, agitated and irritated, having low energy, inability to concentrate, social withdrawal, changes in appetite and problems with sleeping. 

“If any of these symptoms are getting in the way of your everyday life, it would be good to talk to a professional. Please seek immediate help if you experience thoughts of hurting yourself or anyone else,” Frie said.

Sherri Melrose’s review article “Seasonal Affective Disorder: An Overview of Assessment and Treatment Approaches,” published Sept. 13, 2015 in “Depression Research and Treatment Journal,” provides an overview on what SAD is, factors that may contribute to SAD and how SAD is treated. Melrose is a professor in the Faculty of Health Disciplines at Athabasca University, Alberta, Canada. 

According to Melrose, sunlight is an important factor in SAD.

“Sunlight plays a critical role in the decreased serotonin activity, increased melatonin production, disrupted circadian rhythms, and low levels of Vitamin D associated with symptoms of SAD.”

Circadian rhythm is a body’s internal biological clock that responds to the light-dark changes in the day. With the changes of the season, daylight decreases and nights are longer. People with SAD may find it more difficult for their bodies to adjust to the changes of the season.

The next factor is decreased serotonin activity. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, which means it carries signals along and between nerves. Many studies suggest serotonin is responsible for balancing mood. A decrease in light causes a decrease in serotonin levels which could also lead to depression and anxiety.

Then there is melatonin. According to Melrose, “melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland that responds to darkness by causing sleepiness. As winter days become darker, melatonin production increases and, in response, those with SAD feel sleepy and lethargic.”

The last item that Melrose lists as a contributor to SAD is Vitamin D deficiency. Reduced sunlight in the fall and winter leads to a decrease in Vitamin D intake. Exposure to sunlight allows a body to absorb Vitamin D which is used to support our bodies. According to Melrose, insufficient intake of Vitamin D “has been associated with clinically significant depressive symptoms.”

The National Institute of Mental Health says women are four times more likely to get SAD than men. People who live far from the equator are also more at risk to develop SAD.

“It is always important to be honest with your physician on how you have been feeling as there is help available. Discuss your symptoms and when the symptoms started,” Frie said. “Medication and psychotherapy could be options for treatment.”

Frie also recommends exercise, a healthy diet, avoiding drugs and alcohol, going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day and getting enough sleep to treat and prevent depressive symptoms.

“You are not alone and depression is nothing to be ashamed of,” Frie said.