Do I Have Seasonal Depression? 5 Ways To Tell If You Have It

Seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is common. It affects up to around 5% of the U.S. population¹ and is characterized by a low mood. A subtype class of major depressive disorder, it consistently occurs during wintertime. 

If you have symptoms of seasonal depression that significantly impair your quality of life, you could be suffering from SAD. 

Many people experience problems such as changes in appetite, disrupted sleep, and low energy. Typically, symptoms occur when daylight hours decrease in the winter months and begin to dissipate during the summer. Atypically, there is also a smaller proportion that feels seasonal depression in the summer.

The mechanism behind this disorder is not entirely understood, but it is thought that the amount of sunlight can cause symptoms. Sunlight can have an important impact on biological systems that affect mood.

Chemicals such as serotonin, melatonin, and vitamin D have been implicated in SAD.

Have you considered clinical trials for Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

What are the common signs of seasonal depression?

As the days begin to shorten and the weather cools, we tend to spend more and more time indoors. The decreased exposure to sunlight signals the brain to sleep and alters chemicals in our brain that regulate mood and behavior. 

Studies comparing seasonal depression in winter and summer² have found different symptoms. 

Both groups may feel depressed; however, the effects on appetite, sleep, and weight can vary. 

Winter depression typically includes changes in eating habits (including cravings for sweets and carbohydrates), increased amount of sleep, and weight gain.  

Summer depression, on the other hand, is usually characterized by irritability, reduced appetite, less sleep, and weight loss.

1. Feeling depressed

Depression is the most significant symptom of seasonal affective disorder. Low mood, hopelessness, and feelings of despair can lead you to distance yourself from the outside world. 

If you suffer from depression, you might notice that you are increasingly sad for prolonged periods. You may also be unable to get out of bed in the morning because you feel hopeless about the day ahead. 

Activities such as exercise, eating, and socializing take more effort as you struggle to cope with daily functioning. 

People around you will notice the changes in your mood. They might say something like you are becoming less capable of maintaining a conversation or have become less pleasant to be around. They may also just notice that you have become more withdrawn. 

These symptoms can be isolating over long periods, and withdrawing from everything around you will further add feelings of loneliness and alienation. In severe cases, SAD can lead to thoughts of self-harm and suicidal ideation. 

2. Being tired all the time

Are you drowsy during the day, and you just want to continue sleeping no matter how much sleep you get? 

It has been found that SAD can increase periods of drowsiness during the day. Excessive fatigue and low energy may be partially explained by disruptions in the sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythms) and increased melatonin production due to the longer periods of darkness in the winter months. 

3. Having increased appetite

Weight gain³ has been linked to people with SAD and other depressive disorders. This can further impact stress on the mind and body if it is significant.

The weight gain is due mainly to people reporting a bigger appetite and increased portion sizes in winter.

Also, people with SAD may snack more frequently and in larger portions.

Research has found that 30% of people with SAD have episodes of binge eating⁴ during the season they are affected. 

You might find yourself craving more high-calorie foods that are comforting, especially sweets and carbohydrates like bread, rice, and pasta.

4. Withdrawing from your environment

Depression often leads to withdrawal from people and activities. Withdrawal can result in a disconnection with everything around you, including your relationships with loved ones. 

Humans are very social creatures and require a strong network of people around them for support. Depression often causes this web to become smaller, both mentally and physically. 

If you experience SAD, you may start feeling worthless and unable to ask for help. You may find yourself reducing your social interactions at home and work because you do not feel you want to talk to people.

This can make it harder for you to sustain the meaningful connections you may have formed.

Withdrawing from your environment can also be physical, and people with SAD have been associated with spending more time indoors. 

You might be spending more time in bed, and the comfort of your own home, which may worsen your symptoms. 

These are all common signs of depression and will make you feel like there is no one around for you. 

5. Changing sleep patterns

People with SAD often experience significant sleep disruptions. The most common problem is sleeping excessively, also known as hypersomnia. 

Research has shown that approximately 60% of people affected by SAD⁵ feel they sleep between 30 minutes to 2 hours more per night. 

You may feel like it is impossible to get up in the mornings and struggle to get up as your desire to stay in bed gets stronger. Even when you get a lot of extra sleep, you do not feel rested.

What can you do if you have seasonal depression?

Talk to your healthcare provider if you think you are at risk for seasonal depression. They can work with you to implement preventative plans that may help reduce or even eliminate SAD. 

Some common treatments include light therapy and vitamin D supplements in the fall before you begin experiencing symptoms. 

To improve symptoms year-round, maintain a healthy lifestyle, which means keeping up the social interactions with your friends, eating healthy, or exercising if you are feeling low. 

What medical treatments are available for SAD?

Talking to your doctor is the first step, and they can provide you with many treatment options. 

Light therapy is considered to be the first treatment option, and studies have found that it improves SAD symptoms⁶. It involves using a device that emits visible light for approximately 30 to 90 minutes every morning. 

Light therapy can be done while doing other tasks, such as checking your emails before going to work or eating breakfast. You can purchase light therapy boxes over the counter or online. 

Other treatments include medication such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These increase the amount of serotonin available in the brain and have been clinically found to improve mood.

Other options include counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and vitamin D supplements.

While it is common to combine several treatment options, most people begin with light therapy and vitamin D supplements.

The lowdown

Seasonal depression is common and can cause low mood, sleep disruptions, low energy, and appetite changes. SAD can make you feel disconnected from your friends, family, and work. 

There are many effective treatment options available for SAD. It is important to recognize triggers and seek treatment to help reduce symptoms. 

Talk to your healthcare provider today if you think you may be suffering from the seasonal affective disorder.

Have you considered clinical trials for Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64

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