Written By: UMA Editorial Team |

Published on: February 3, 2024

Many people experience temporary mood changes with the seasons. Some feel “down” during shorter fall and winter days, but improve in spring with longer daylight hours. These changes can be a part of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD symptoms typically start in late fall or early winter and subside in spring and summer. Others may experience depressive symptoms in spring and summer, known as summer-pattern SAD, which is less common.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression tied to the seasons. It lasts around 4-5 months each year and shares symptoms with depression, but also has seasonal-specific indicators for winter-pattern and summer-pattern SAD. Note that not everyone with SAD experiences all the symptoms mentioned below. For a better understanding of depression signs and symptoms, refer to this informative resource.

Symptoms of depression may include:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety, or emptiness for at least 2 weeks.
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism.
  • Irritability, frustration, or restlessness.
  • Guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities.
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, or feeling slowed down.
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions.
  • Changes in sleep patterns, appetite, weight, or unplanned weight fluctuations.
  • Unexplained physical aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive issues.
  • Thoughts of death, suicide, or suicide attempts.
  • Excessive sleeping (hypersomnia).
  • Increased food consumption, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates and weight gain.
  • Social withdrawal and a desire to avoid social interactions.

Differentiate between winter-pattern SAD and the transient “holiday blues,” which are related to seasonal stressors. SAD is specifically linked to changes in daylight hours rather than calendar events, so the stress associated with holidays or predictable seasonal changes is not the same as SAD.

How Common is SAD?

About 5% of adults in the U.S. experience SAD. It tends to start in young adulthood (usually between the ages of 18 and 30). SAD affects people assigned female at birth more than people assigned male, though researchers aren’t sure why.

About 10% to 20% of people in America may get a milder form of these winter blues.

How is SAD Diagnosed?

If you or someone you know shows symptoms of SAD, consult a healthcare provider or mental health specialist. They may ask you to complete a questionnaire to assess if your symptoms meet the following criteria for SAD:

  • Experience symptoms of depression or specific symptoms of winter- or summer-pattern SAD listed above.
  • Depressive episodes occur during specific seasons (winter or summer) for at least 2 consecutive years. Not all individuals with SAD have symptoms every year.
  • Depressive episodes during the specific season are more frequent than episodes experienced at other times of the year.

Who Develops SAD?

It is estimated that 11 million Americans experience SAD, although many may not know they have this common disorder. 

SAD occurs much more often in women than in men. Winter-pattern SAD also occurs more often than summer-pattern SAD. Therefore, SAD is more common in people living farther north, where there are shorter daylight hours in the winter. For example, people in Alaska or New England are more likely to develop SAD than people in Texas or Florida.

SAD is more common in people with depression or bipolar disorder, especially bipolar II disorder, which involves repeated depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes (less severe than the typical manic episodes of bipolar I disorder). Additionally, people with SAD tend to have other mental disorders, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, eating disorder, anxiety disorder, or panic disorder. Learn more about these disorders.

SAD sometimes runs in families and may be more common in people who have relatives with other mental illnesses, such as depression or schizophrenia.

What Causes SAD?

Researchers are still studying the causes of SAD. Most research has focused on winter-pattern SAD, as it is more common and easier to study. Less is known about summer-pattern SAD, and more research is needed.

Studies suggest that people with SAD, especially winter-pattern SAD, have lower levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates mood. Sunlight may affect molecules that help maintain normal serotonin levels. In the winter, shorter daylight hours may disrupt these molecules, leading to decreased serotonin levels.

Vitamin D deficiency may worsen winter-pattern SAD because it promotes serotonin activity. With less daylight, people with SAD may have lower vitamin D levels, further reducing serotonin activity.

Both forms of SAD may involve altered levels of melatonin, a hormone that affects the sleep-wake cycle. Winter-pattern SAD is associated with excessive melatonin production, leading to sleepiness and oversleeping. Summer-pattern SAD may involve reduced melatonin levels due to sleep disruptions from longer daylight hours and high temperatures.

Changes in serotonin and melatonin disrupt the body’s daily rhythm tied to the seasonal cycle. People with SAD struggle to adjust to seasonal changes in day length, leading to sleep, mood, and behavior changes.

Negative thoughts and feelings about the winter or summer are common among people with SAD. It is unclear whether these thoughts are causes or effects of the mood disorder, but they can be addressed in treatment.

What is Ayurveda’s Understanding of SAD?

According to Ayurveda, mental illness is believed to arise from a complex interaction between the dosha (biological qualities) and the gunas (psychological qualities). Imbalances in the three doshas manifest as various cognitive and somatic symptoms. Vata is associated with anxiety and hyperactivity, Kapha is linked to passivity and lethargy, and pitta is connected to intense emotions like anger. Though some studies have shown that depression is associated with two of the three dosha: Kapha and Vata. 

Kapha unmada (depression) was believed to stem from external factors like tension, bereavement, loss, or an improper diet. On the other hand, Vata-induced depression, known as viṣadam, is considered milder than kapha unmada and is often associated with rumination and worries. According to research, viṣadam can be addressed through Ayurvedic medication and counseling, while Kapha unmada requires additional measures like purgatory and purifying procedures. These procedures include internal (snēhapana) and external (abhyaṅga) body oiling, sweating (svēdana), therapeutic vomiting (vamana), and nasal treatment (nasya).

Does Aromatherapy Help Cope with SAD?

Aromatherapy, using essential oils such as lavender, bergamot, and citrus oils, is renowned for its mood-boosting properties. Inhaling these oils through diffusion, direct inhalation, or roll-on application can positively impact your mood, alleviating feelings of sadness and depression.

For individuals experiencing SAD, aromatherapy with essential oils like lavender, chamomile, and frankincense can have calming and stress-reducing effects. They help alleviate anxiety and stress commonly associated with SAD, promoting a sense of tranquility and mental well-being.

To combat lethargy and improve mental clarity, peppermint, rosemary, and eucalyptus essential oils can provide an invigorating energy boost. Incorporating these oils into your routine may help counteract the challenges of concentration often experienced with SAD.

SAD can disrupt sleep patterns, but aromatherapy with essential oils like lavender, cedarwood, and valerian are known for their sleep-inducing properties. Utilizing these oils may enhance the quality of sleep for individuals with SAD.

To effectively utilize aromatherapy for SAD:

  • Diffuse oils in your home, especially in the morning, to create a positive atmosphere at the start of your day.
  • Burn a lavender oil-infused candle to bring pure bliss to those gloomy days.
  • Apply essential oil blends using a roll-on application to your pulse points and/or the soles of your feet.
  • Incorporate oils into a warm bath to promote relaxation.

By incorporating these aromatherapy techniques, you can optimize the benefits of essential oils for managing SAD and promoting overall well-being.

*Finding Help for Mental Illnesses: Resources and Support

Learn about ways to get help and find a healthcare provider or access treatment. 

If you or someone you know is struggling or having thoughts of suicide, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org. In life-threatening situations, call 911.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has an online treatment locator to help you find mental health services in your area.