Seasonal Affective Disorder


Symptoms and Complications

SAD usually occurs during the late fall or winter months - usually between October and April. Symptoms include:

  • lethargy and fatigue (low energy level)
  • withdrawal from friends and family
  • inability to focus or concentrate
  • sadness, anxiety, and despair
  • change in appetite with cravings for sweets and starches
  • weight gain
  • headaches
  • irritability
  • increased sleep

In children, symptoms include irritability, problems in school, and difficulty getting out of bed.

Some people, especially those who experience SAD in the summer, may have an opposite pattern of symptoms, such as loss of appetite and weight loss as well as insomnia.

Making the Diagnosis

Even if someone is not predisposed to depression, SAD can affect them. The diagnosis for SAD is made when certain criteria are met.

Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and perform a physical exam. Your doctor may also order blood tests to rule out other medical conditions (e.g., low thyroid) that have similar symptoms to SAD.

Treatment and Prevention

There are many options for treating SAD. It is usually treated with light therapy, exercise, and good nutrition, as well as antidepressants in more pronounced and severe cases.

Daily (professionally supervised) phototherapy with exposure to a specific type of light (full-spectrum white light) can sometimes eliminate SAD quite quickly. Phototherapy is delivered in a phototherapy device ("light box") that can be purchased or rented on a monthly basis from a private supplier or in medical device stores. People can read, but not sleep, for the several hours a day they receive light therapy.

Symptoms should subside within a few days, but they may reappear if therapy is stopped. Phototherapy should always be administered in consultation with a physician, as there are some people who should not use it.

Exercise is very helpful, especially if it's aerobic and combined with light, for example, walking outdoors on a bright winter day or exercising on a treadmill in front of a light box.

Because many people with SAD gain weight, a healthy and low-fat diet is important to help keep weight gain to a minimum.

Counseling and therapy may also be part of a treatment plan for SAD.


Paul Ballas, DO, Attending Psychiatrist, Friends Hospital, Philadelphia PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.

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The contents of this health site are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition.

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