Are You Feeling S.A.D.?
By Annette E. Barton, ACSW, BCD

It’s no longer summer. The leaves have fallen from the trees. The sky has been gray for so many days that you have forgetten what blue looked like. This is the time of year when people may begin to notice that they are feeling sad, blue, irritable and generally blah. Here in Michigan, we have an abundance of gray days. We also have a high incidence of Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.)

Do you find yourself feeling cranky, irritable, or blah? You may be one of the approximate 20% of the population who are "solar powered" and suffer from S.A.D. An estimated 6% of the population experiences full blown Seasonal Affective Disorder and an additional 10 to 20% experience a milder form. The incidence of S.A.D. increases as the latitude increases ranging from 1.4% in Florida to 10.2% in Washington.

10 to 38% of people with recurrent mood disorders may also experience S.A.D. Women appear to be more prone to S.A.D. than men with some sources stating that women are 4 times more likely than men to experience the disorder. Symptoms usually occur after age 20, though some children who have parents or siblings with S.A.D. or another psychological condition can experience Seasonal Affective Disorder as well.

How can you tell if you have S.A.D.?

Symptoms include:

Decreased energy in the fall and winter
Weight gain
Difficulty concentrating
Appetite disturbance, more frequently eating more, but sometimes less
Sleeping more
Increased sadness
Increased anxiety
Decreased libido
Increased irritability
Craving Carbohydrates
Avoiding Social Situations

What causes S.A.D.?

There is no definitive answer to this question. Listed below are some of the theories.

Decreasing daylight. Some believe that it is the decreased light in winter that causes the depressive feelings to surface. Others have posited that even dark interior lighting or long periods of excessively cloudy days create the condition. Additional studies discount this theory and state that there is no causal relationship between decreased light and S.A.D.

Melatonin. Melatonin plays a role in the timing of our circadian rhythms and the sleep-wake cycle. S.A.D. was originally believed to be caused by abnormal melatonin metabolism. Later findings contradicted this. However there are some contradictory reports that hypothesize that people with S.A.D. have an abnormal sensitivity to light.

Biological Clock (Circadian Rhythms). We all have an internal biological clock that regulates our bodily functions. These can be measured to track our high and low periods. People with S.A.D. have been shown to have delays in their circadian rhythms and their rhythms peak at less regular times.

Sleep Cycle. The most useful circadian rhythm marker is a person’s sleep cycle. Our moods are influenced by the interaction between our periods of wakefulness and sleep. Even moderate changes in this cycle can greatly affect our mood. People with S.A.D. do not appear to have a regular sleep/wake cycle and experience less restful sleep.

Serotonin. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood and appetite. It has been shown to have less concentration during the winter months and people with S.A.D. have been show to have a lowering of brain serotonin function.

What kinds of treatments will help S.A.D.?

Light therapy. Get out in the sun whenever it is shining. Use a light box like those available through Northern Lights or E.T.A. Do not use a tanning bed, as these contain UV rays that are harmful to the eyes and skin. In order for light therapy to work, your eyes must be open and you need to have 30 or more minutes of exposure. Both of these requirements are not healthy for tanning bed use.

Psychotherapy. Depressed people experience distortions in their view of the world and their way of thinking. Psychotherapy can help people to change their depressive thinking patterns.

Exercise. Some studies suggest that 30 minutes of exercise three times each week can decrease depressive symptoms by as much as 40%. Neurochemical changes occur when a person exercises. The "runner’s high" is a real phenomenon as the "feel good brain chemical" beta-endorphins are released into the bloodstream. These are the same chemicals that are released during orgasm.

Light simulator Alarm Clock. Some theorists suggest that waking up with a light simulator will help to regulate the circadian rhythms. There are many varieties on the market and they are available on the Internet and through many catalogs such as Self Care.

Medications and Herbal remedies. SSRI’s (Serotonin Specific Reuptake Inhibitors, such as Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa and Prozac) have been shown to help with S.A.D. There are some promising studies out for the use of St. John’s Wort, which is an herbal remedy made from the flower of the St. John’s Wort plant. When using herbals, it is very important to make sure that the formula has a standardized formula with guaranteed potency. Since there are not the same kind of regulations on herbals as there are on pharmaceuticals, someone can package a formula of St. John’s Wort using only a small percentage of the flower and add in stems, leaves, etc. This formulation will not be as effective as one made just from the flowers.


Anonymous. (2000, March 1) Information from you family doctor: Seasonal affective disorder. American Family Physician. 61 (5), 1541-1542.

Levy, A.J. (1987) Treating Chronobiologic Sleep and Mood Disorders with Bright Light. Psychiatric Annuls. 17 (10), 664-669.

Thomas, K.H. and Lewy, A.J. (1993) Circadian Phase Sleep and Mood Disorders. Directions in Psychiatry. 13 (24).

Partohnen, T. and Lonnqvist, J. (1998) Seasonal Affective Disorder. The Lancet. 352 (9137), 1369-1374.

Rosenthal, N.E. (1993) Diagnosis and Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder. JAMA. 270 (22), 2717-2720.

Rosentahal, Norman. (1994, September/October) Light Therapy: Theory and Practice. Primary Psychiatry.

Zuess, J. (1998) The Wisdom of Depression. New York: Random House.


Light Box Manufacturers

ETA systems:

Northern Lights:


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2005-2007, Annette Barton, ACSW, BCD

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The information provided on this website is intended for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, or in any other way substitute for the assistance of a professional.

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