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Shorter Fall Days = SAD Symptoms Kick In

It doesn't take many days of sunsets at 7:50 p.m. for my own mild SAD to kick in. Even though the daytime temperatures are still hitting the 80s, I'm pulling out the wool throws and thinking about making a vat of mac and cheese. This is a common response as we head into Fall. Most of us occasionally suffer from the "Winter Blues," but SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder is more than that.

According to Mental Health America (formerly National Mental Health Association) , a diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder can be made after 3 consecutive winters of the following symptoms if they are followed by complete remission of those symptoms in the spring and summer months:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mood changes: extremes of mood and in some, periods of mania in spring and summer
  • Sleep problems: desire to oversleep and difficulty staying awake or disturbed sleep and early morning awakening
  • Lethargy
  • Overeating: craving for starchy and sweet foods resulting in weight gain
  • Social problems: irritability and desire to avoid social contact
  • Sexual problems: decreased libido and decreased interest in physical contact
SAD may be a result of seasonal light variation. As seasons change, there is
a shift in our "biological internal clock" or circadian rhythm due partly to
these changes in sunlight patterns. This can cause our biological clock to
be out of step with our daily schedules.
There has also been research linking the sleep-related hormone, melatonin to SAD. Results of some of these findings can be found on NIMH's (National Institute of Mental Health) site.

An excellent resource, for both health professionals and lay people is Winter Blues: Seasonal Affective Disorder: What Is It and How to Overcome It by Norman E. Rosenthal, MD. Dr. Rosenthal explores several treatment options, including the most popular, light therapy, but also herbal, vitamin and antidepressant options.

goLite sad light boxLight therapy is usually recommended, utilizing a 10,000 lux light box, which contains fluorescent light tubes covered with a plastic screen blocking ultraviolet rays. The Cleveland Clinic offers a more extensive exploration of light therapy for SAD. This article also has a list of sources for light boxes.

The model shown is from goLITE.

Most cases of SAD are mild to moderate. But with any possible diagnoses, if you believe you are experiencing symptoms of SAD, you should see your doctor or a mental health professional. Many of the symptoms of SAD can also be indicators of a more severe depression or other disorder.


  1. I usually react to the first days of fall weather with a mix of exhilaration and dread. Exhilaration because the air is clean, refreshing and stunningly blue. Dread because it reminds me that shorter days are on the way.

    Although it's in the 80s today, I treated myself to a pair of fleece gloves. At least when cold weather hits, I'll have something new to wear.

  2. Hi Anon:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    You have hit on a small but important way to combat mild SAD symptoms. Treating yourself to something new to keep warm in the winter days ahead is a great idea!


  3. I have started stocking up on tea early; an afternoon cup of tea helps me meditate a little and "embrace" the season.

    I also look for funny things to keep my spirit light...dot2dothealcareblog.com has funny podcasts though he recently moved to mdpnn.dot2dothealthcareblog to do more medical parody. Since medical issues CAN be quite depressing, I appreciate intelligent humor when I can find it!

    Will be sending happy thoughts your way as the sun goes down early today~ you have a great blog.

  4. I'm so glad you are bringing up the topic before the darkest, coldest days are upon us. yes, light therapy can help people a great deal. Another very effective method is to eat a serotonin-boosting diet which capitalizes on the ability of starchy and sweet carbohydrates (like oatmeal and brown sugar) to cause the brain to make serotonin. Increased serotonin translates to improved mood, more mental energy, and reduced cravings that so often accompany SAD. My colleague Judith Wurtman, PhD and her husband Richard Wurtman, MD discovered this phenomenon at MIT. A balanced, wholesome diet is of benefit to everyone but particularly in the setting of SAD (and, incidentally, also for people on antidepressants who have gained weight as a result of their medications - and often antidepressant therapy and SAD go hand in hand), the key is to flip the menu such that the afternoon snack and evening meal focus on carbohydrates such as pasta or rice and protein is eaten earlier in the day. Boost serotonin through food and you will reduce SAD, you may find it easier to lose weight, and certainly you will be eating delicious foods as well.
    - Nina Marquis, MD

  5. tiadavidandourlittlechickens - thanks for your comments. Keep looking out for the things that make you smile

    nina- thanks for your post. those are interesting findings. thanks for the tip!


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