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Feeling blue? It could be seasonal depression.

Seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), affects about 5% of Americans. It's more than the “winter blues.” Learn what causes it and how to manage it.

December 05, 2023

Feeling blue? It could be seasonal depression.

If your mood gets darker as you head into the cold, dark days of winter, and you have ongoing feelings of anxiety, fatigue and sadness, it might be more than the “winter blues.” You may be experiencing a type of depression related to seasonal changes. It’s called seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

It's important to learn about the condition to help recognize the symptoms in yourself or others and be aware of the treatment options.

What are the symptoms of seasonal depression?

  • Persistent feelings of sadness and depression
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of energy
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
  • Weight gain

What causes seasonal depression?

It’s clear that the darker days of late fall and winter trigger seasonal depression. But why? Researchers are still trying to understand that. Studies point to reduced activity of some brain chemicals including serotonin, which regulates mood. Vitamin D plays a role because it helps boost serotonin levels. Our bodies depend on sunlight to help produce vitamin D and weak winter sun can lead to lower vitamin D levels and less serotonin.

Other research indicates that people with seasonal depression produce too much melatonin which can increase sleepiness. What is clear is that as springtime arrives and the days get brighter and warmer, seasonal depression tends to wane for most individuals.

Who suffers from seasonal depression?

The condition is fairly common, affecting about 5% of American adults, with 10%-20% experiencing a milder form of this condition. Many may not realize they have it. Those at higher risk for the condition include:

  • Women (they experience the disorder more often than men
  • Those living in northern areas that get colder, cloudier and darker in the winter
  • Individuals who already have another mental health disorder

How do you treat seasonal depression?

The good news is there are treatments that can help manage the condition. Before starting any of these, talk with your doctor about what’s best for your health condition.

  • Light therapy — Exposure to strong light every day during the winter – called phototherapy – can reduce symptoms. General guidance is to sit within three feet of a 10,000-lux light for up to 30 minutes each morning. Note that phototherapy uses special lights, and you should not look directly at them. Also, just getting outside in the daylight, even on cloudy days, can help.  
  • Medication — Doctors can prescribe antidepressants to help ease the symptoms.
  • Talk therapy — Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy, is effective for helping people cope with seasonal depression symptoms.

Can nutrition help ease symptoms?

Yes, good nutrition can help reduce symptoms of seasonal depression and provide the energy you need to feel better. Some foods affect how brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, work to regulate mood. For example, dopamine, which helps boost concentration and alertness, is released in the body after you eat protein. The calming, mood-boosting chemical serotonin is released after you consume carbohydrates including dairy, fruit, sugar and starches.

Mood-enhancing foods include:

  • Low fat proteins — Fish, lean chicken or turkey, eggs, tofu and low-fat diary
  • High fiber carbohydrates — Whole grain pastas and breads, vegetables, fresh fruits, beans and lentils

Mom's Meals® can help

White paper: The Interconnection of Nutrition with Mental and Behavioral Health

White paper: The Interconnection of Nutrition with Mental and Behavioral Health

Our free white paper takes a closer look at this relationship, studies that help prove the power of quality nutrition and how medically tailored meals can help.

Good nutrition is fundamental to better physical and mental health all year long. An easy and convenient way to help get the right nutrition for you or your loved is with our delicious, ready-to-heat-and-eat meals delivered direct to your home. Choose the meals you like to match your tastes and nutritional needs.