Love the crisp autumn air but hate how depressed you feel when the sun begins to set while you’re still at the office? You may have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or seasonal depression, a type of depression triggered by seasonal light changes. In most cases, symptoms begin during late fall or early winter and start to fade away as the days become longer during spring. However, some people get SAD in spring or summer—it’s just less common. Either way, symptoms include loss of interest in things that you once enjoyed, lack of energy, sadness, feelings of hopeless, difficulty concentrating, a strong desire to sleep, or changes in appetite or weight. Thankfully though, the condition can be treated.
“It really is a manageable thing,” Dr. Janis Louise Anderson, an associate psychologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, says of the condition.
You may have heard about light therapy, or phototherapy, as a popular treatment for SAD. Psychotherapy, medications, and lifestyle changes can also help. There are many things, however, that you may not know about this type of depression, especially when it comes to how it affects your weight. To help you make more informed decisions about your health and weight maintenance strategies, we gathered some must-know information about SAD that everyone should know before the darker days of autumn arrive. Read on to get in the know—and don’t miss these 30 Ways to Be Happier to stay healthy and optimistic year round.
It Has Genetic Ties
A small study out of the University of Virginia found that seasonal depression may be linked to a genetic mutation in the eye that makes SAD patients less sensitive to light. More recent research out of UC San Francisco found a human gene mutation that seems to connect unusual sleep patterns and heightened rates of the condition. Typically, symptoms begin between 18 and 30 years of age.
SAD Can Start in the Autumn
Despite conventional wisdom, SAD doesn’t simply begin with the winter solstice. People typically begin experiencing SAD during late September or October, and it gradually gets worse as winter begins, says Anderson. If you tend to exercise less in the fall, you may want to make a conscious effort to move more and try some of these 25 Weight Loss Hacks Perfect for Fall to counteract the feelings of depression and ward off the associated weight gain.
Women with Other Mood Disorders Are at Risk
Long-term studies have found that about one-third of SAD patients have another type of mood disorder. Research also suggests that SAD occurs four times more often in women than in men, however, some sources say that men have more severe symptoms. While these 20 Foods That Put You in a Bad Mood certainly won’t increase your risk for the condition, they certainly won’t help, so be sure to stay away!
You Need to Get Diagnosed
Not sure if you have SAD? Ask perceptive family members and friends if they’ve noticed that your behavioral patterns happen to correlate with the seasons. And most importantly, talk to your doctor. To diagnose SAD, you must experience symptoms for two consecutive years in a row, notes Dr. Linda Higley, a psychologist based in Washington. “The main thing is to take it seriously and reach out [for help],” adds Anderson.
Though most SAD sufferers have anxiety leading up to the fall and winter, it’s possible to learn how to reduce symptoms and better cope with them. “You’re not doomed,” Anderson says, adding, “Some years tend to be worse than others.” And most importantly, if you know to expect a change in your mood and outlook come fall, you’ll be better able to manage your condition.
It Makes You Crave Carbs
People with SAD may have intense cravings for certain foods—especially carbs, explains Anderson. It may be hard to pass up all those tasty fall comfort foods, but the natural inclination to indulge could wreak havoc on your weight loss progress or weight management plans. To overcome your cravings and better manage your condition, Anderson recommends reading Winter Blues by Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a psychiatrist and professor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. Still need the mashed potatoes? Try one of these 10 Tips for Healthy Comfort Foods to make the dish more waistline-friendly.
The Stigma is Diminishing
Does anybody like it when the days start getting shorter? Not really. That’s why people seem to understand that SAD is a legitimate condition. And it’s far less stigmatized now than in it was in the 1980s, Anderson says, perhaps because of all the research on the condition that’s been released in recent years. “We know much more now about the kind of annual changes that all kinds of animals go through,” she adds. “People can relate to it. In some ways, it’s not as hard for people to acknowledge it.”
You Can Eat to Ease Symptoms
That giant bowl of spaghetti may make be exactly what you’re craving but you’re better off indulging in a healthier source of carbs like pulse pasta or unprocessed oats, which will boost levels of serotonin (the mood-boosting, feel-good hormone that’s lower in those with SAD) without causing additional energy dips. Omega-3 fatty acids can also increase levels of the happy hormone, making things like spinach, grass-fed beef, walnuts, and fatty fish smart diet additions. Vitamin D supplements and sources of the nutrient (like wild salmon, eggs, tuna, and fortified milk) can also help, says Dr. Linda Higley, a Washington-based psychologist. Though the reason why isn’t clear, there’s been a link established between low vitamin D levels and various mood disorders, including SAD.
You May Gain Weight
Some people may not have SAD, but they show a seasonal pattern of weight gain or loss. And that’s because in the fall and winter, peopla re ‘more apt to soak up their soup with some bread or give into a serving macaroni and cheese. However, if you typically don’t put on pounds during the winter but you have recently, you might want to go through a mental checklist to see if you’re experiencing any other symptoms of the condition.
Your Location Matters
SAD isn't about the cold; rather, it’s a result of the lack of light available as the days grow shorter, Higley says. The farther north you live in the U.S., the more prone you are to experiencing SAD. Just 1 percent of Floridians experience SAD, while 9 percent of those living in Alaska are plagued with the condition. In New York, 17 percent of the population has SAD while a few hours north, 20 percent of New Hampshire residents have it. All and all, about 6 percent of the U.S. population suffers from the condition.
While doctors have proven that phototherapy (light therapy) can help people combat SAD, Anderson says that a walk outside can be just as beneficial. Rosenthal concurs, adding that mornings are the best time to get light. If you home tends to be dark, trim hedges to allow more light to pour through the windows. You may also want to designate one room that’s particularly sunny as a “light room” where you can spend dark winter days.
Exercise Can Help
Getting more light isn’t the only great way to combat SAD, exercise can help, too, making a morning jog or walk outside a great activity to add to your daily routine. “Exercise is a big part of working with the symptoms associated with SAD,” said Tiffany Cruikshank, author of Meditate Your Weight. “I personally really like yoga because it also initiates an investigation of personal inquiry and body awareness which I believe is very helpful. But most important is finding some sort of movement that you enjoy and can do you regularly. Even just 10 or 15 minutes a day can be really helpful.” (If you can do yoga in a sunny room in your home, even better!) After you break a sweat, make sure you refuel and nourish your body right. Our report 20 Trainers Reveal What They Eat After a Workout can help!
Stress Can Be Tougher to Deal With
Rosenthal notes that SAD can make it harder to cope with stress and stressful situation. To make matters worse, stress can trigger people to turn to food for comfort which can result in weight gain—a nasty cycle! Check out these 10 Ways to Relax So Healthy Eating Works to help counteract the urge to pull your hair out when the going gets tough.