How Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Exacerbates Underlying Mental Illness

Jan 17, 2023
How Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Exacerbates Underlying Mental Illness
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that occurs at certain times of the year — usually the winter. If you have other mental health issues, SAD could make those symptoms worse. Here’s what to look for.

If you are feeling depressed, fatigued, or “out of sorts” when the shorter days of winter arrive, you’re not alone. Millions of Americans suffer from what’s known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a type of depression that follows the cycle of the seasons. 

SAD causes symptoms of its own, but if you also suffer from major depressive disorder or an anxiety disorder, SAD can make those symptoms worse. The good news: you may not be able to control the seasons, but there are things you can do to manage SAD and its effects.

At MindMD in Beverly Hills, California, our team helps patients recognize the signs and symptoms of SAD, offering a custom treatment approach that reduces symptoms and helps every patient find relief. Here’s how SAD could be making your mental health issues worse.

The basics of SAD

Seasonal affective disorder is a depression “triggered” by a change in seasons. Most people suffer from SAD during the fall and winter, although a small percentage can experience the same symptoms during spring and summer. 

Although researchers aren’t sure what causes SAD, it appears to be linked to a reduction in serotonin, a brain chemical that plays a vital role in regulating moods. Serotonin production, in turn, is stimulated in part by sunlight, which explains why winter’s shorter days cause levels of the chemical to decline.

SAD may also be related to an overabundance of another chemical called melatonin that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Too much melatonin can cause feelings of sleepiness and fatigue, common in people with SAD.

Finally, SAD might be triggered or worsened by low levels of vitamin D, which also plays a role in serotonin production. While we get some vitamin D in our diets, our bodies make a lot of our vitamin D when we expose our skin to sunlight. Less sunlight during the winter months means less vitamin D production, indicating decreased serotonin levels.

How SAD affects other issues

SAD is more common among people who also have major depression or bipolar disorder, and it tends to be more common among people who live in cloudy regions where natural sunlight is especially limited. 

Because it’s a type of depression, SAD causes symptoms that are similar to major depressive disorder, which includes:

  • Feelings of fatigue or lethargy
  • Lack of interest in socializing or activities
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Low self-esteem or self-worth
  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • Weight gain
  • Problems concentrating or staying on task
  • Feelings of agitation or irritation

If you also suffer from other mental health issues, like anxiety or major depressive disorder, it can magnify those problems, too.

That’s because SAD makes it much harder to cope, and unless you receive additional treatment during the months when your symptoms flare-up, you may discover that the treatment, once effective for anxiety or depression, no longer brings relief to your symptoms.

You don’t have to have “full-blown” SAD to exacerbate your depression or anxiety symptoms. As many as 20% of Americans suffer from a milder version of seasonal depression, sometimes referenced as the “wintertime blues.”

Treating SAD

While therapy and antidepressant medications can help many people with SAD, these treatments are often coupled with light therapy to help replace the effects of natural light in short supply during the dark months of fall and winter. Some patients can benefit from vitamin D supplements to help their bodies regulate the production and activity of serotonin.

As with other types of depression, SAD requires regular office visits to ensure your treatment stays on track. By adjusting your therapy to your needs, you can experience a decrease in depression symptoms and prevent “flare-ups” of coexisting mental health issues, like major depression or anxiety disorders.

Recognizing the symptoms and effects of SAD is the first step in taking back control of your moods, health, and life. To learn how our team can help you relieve SAD symptoms and reduce their impact on your emotional wellness, call 424-307-9504 or book an appointment online with MindMD today.