What is Seasonal Affective Disorder? SAD vs Depression

Edmonton WinterIt’s the middle of winter, green grass and +20 C weather seem like a distant memory. With the less daylight outside paired with blistering winds, you notice yourself becoming more tired than in the summer months. Perhaps you find yourself indulging in high sugar/high fat comfort foods, maybe you find yourself quick to anger or tears these days. The mere thought of exercise or eating salad sends you hiding under your covers. Going out and socializing seems like a chore particularly when you feel like you’re constantly fighting one cold or another. This is a typical picture of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

As a naturopathic doctor, I often get patients with these complaints seeking advice. In efforts to help them, I approach health from a ‘wholistic’ perspective, meaning that I will consider all angles and facets of a person. If we equate this philosophy to a tree and the soil it’s grown in, it would be represented as the following: One of the factors in determining the health of a plant rests in the nutrient and mineral content of the soil. If the soil is depleted, or toxic then the plant that grows from that soil may be wilted or prone to disease. Similarly, if we use the soil to represent our body’s constitution, depending on what we incorporate within our body, that determines our risk of disease or illness. For instance, if in a person’s constitution, there is a significant amount of fast food and processed foods consumed, then as a result their body (soil) may become depleted of nutrients. Further, if that person works in a job where they are exposed to harmful chemicals, have a history of a physical injury (such as a car accident), perhaps lives a high stress life, then that constitution may be prone to developing illness/disease. This unfortunate being may be at a higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, mood disorders (like SAD or Depression), obesity, cold/flu or even cancer. In whole-person care, I would then return to their constitution and help a patient from that perspective. Thus, we would work on diet/nutrition, perhaps a test for toxic heavy metals and then chelate them out of the body, do acupuncture to help repair the physical injury. By giving the body the appropriate foundation healing can begin and the type of ‘tree’ the person becomes is one that is stronger, healthier and happier.

Over the next few weeks, I will be shining a light on whole person care from the perspective of SAD. First, let’s begin by understanding what it is and how it compares/differs from depression. Then, we’ll look into conventional medicine treatment options and some further expansions from ‘alternative’ or traditional medicine basis. That may include anything from food changes, to vitamins, herbals, lifestyle changes and exercise. I encourage you to speak/write about your experiences and know that there is a community of support here at Blitz Conditioning.

SAD and depression share many commonalities but have some important differences. Both are under an umbrella classification of mood disorders. They are not as uncommon as you would think, approximately 13.3% of Canadians have been diagnosed with a mood disorder at some point in their lives, more specifically, 12.2% have been diagnosed with depression. Typically females outnumber men in the depression 2:1(1). This shows us that mood disorders are not uncommon or unheard of. Mental health remains elusive to much of society as it is not measurable on a scale, like blood sugar or cholesterol. Instead we rely on symptoms that a person elaborates on. Each individual has a unique way in which they express depression depending on how they were raised and their genetic background, however some of the more common symptoms include the following:

  • Depressed mood
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Diminished interest or pleasure
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
  • Significant change in weight or appetite
  • Inability to think, concentrate or being indecisive
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too much)
  • Recurrent thoughts of death; or suicide plan, attempt or ideation (1)
  • Muscle twitches or slow muscle response

While many of us have experienced any number of these thoughts in our daily lives, the key feature that brings up a red flag for a diagnosis of depression is the length of time. A person must be experiencing these symptoms for a period of at least two weeks. Further, having these symptoms are not enough to classify someone as having a depressive mood disorder, there are other risk factors that need to be considered, such as ongoing physical health issues (diabetes, heart disease, obesity, alcohol abuse, etc), ongoing stress, and family history.

While depression is felt most days for a long period of time, SAD is mostly experienced in the late autumn and winter months, especially when the days are shortened, or during cloudy/rainy days the rest of the year. Common symptoms of SAD include the following:

  • Hopelessness
  • Sluggish movements
  • Increased appetite with weight gain
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increased sleep
  • Unhappiness and irritability
  • Less energy or inability to concentrate
  • Loss of interest in work or other activities

The distinguishing feature between SAD and depression seems to be the length of time that the person feels the symptoms. If it’s only during certain periods of weather then SAD is considered, however, if it’s felt for 2 weeks or longer even during the summer months, then perhaps a diagnosis of major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder is considered.

Conventional medicine will treat SAD with anti-depressants. They help to bring out more of the brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, that elicit happiness through serotonin. However, you can also increase your own endogenous sources of serotonin through diet/nutrition changes, sunlight exposure, and exercise. I’ll elaborate more on these perspectives that can be used either solely or in combination with medications.

However, any health changes you are going to make must be under the supervision of a health care professional, whether it is a naturopathic doctor or a family doctor. Someone needs to monitor and make sure that all methods are safe for your own individual health constitution.

I invite your feedback and comments below to help shape what it is you would like to learn about SAD. Thank you!

1. Public Health Agency of Canada. What is Depression. Accessed Feb. 3, 2014. http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/cd-mc/mi-mm/depression-eng.php
2. Pub Med Health. Seasonal affective disorder. Accessed Feb. 5, 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002499/


  1. Thank you Baljit! Is it possible to have SAD layered on top of depression in the winter months?

    • Hi Rosemary! I just checked with Baljit, yes it is possible to have both SAD and depression occur together. In actuality SAD has a higher prevalence in people with depression.

Share your thoughts