Is S.A.D. Giving You the Holiday Blues?

Maylin Rodriguez-Paez, RN

The holidays aren't always a happy time for everyone. People often remember loved ones who've passed away or left their lives, which can trigger feelings of sadness, nostalgia, and even emptiness.

This is what’s typically referred to as the “holiday blues.” Sometimes, however, it can be a little more serious than that.

Some people are actually affected by S.A.D. (seasonal affective disorder), a real psychological disorder. These symptoms usually appear in the winter months and closely mimic the holiday blues. In this post, we’ll shed some light on S.A.D.’s key features and how to treat it.

What is S.A.D.?

S.A.D. is characterized by cyclical bouts of depression, increased appetite, and an increased need for sleep. Anxiety and carb cravings may also be present.

Symptoms typically last from late fall to winter. It occurs in up to 10% of the population,1 with most cases occurring in people living in northern latitudes2 where days are shorter.

What Causes S.A.D.?

There are different theories, but the most popular relates to the circadian rhythms, the body’s internal clock system that governs behavior, physiological function, and sleep. During the winter months, the amount of sunlight decreases, causing changes in melatonin levels and consequently, the body’s sleep-wake cycle. In susceptible people, this could result in sleep disorders and psychological problems.

Another theory relates to neurotransmitter levels. Research shows people with S.A.D. tend to have low or abnormal levels of serotonin (a precursor to melatonin), acetylcholine, and dopamine.3-6 The proper balance of these neurotransmitters is needed for a healthy mood.

Natural Treatments for S.A.D.

Sun lamps are often the first line of treatment. They work for many people, but not for approximately 40% of patients.7 Luckily, there are other options to choose from.

For example, low doses of melatonin have been shown to improve the mood of S.A.D. patients.8 Other studies show L-tryptophan and St. John’s wort may also help, with some studies proving them equally effective as light therapy.7,9 In addition, it may also help to take nutrients that support the production of neurotransmitters such as vitamin B6, folic acid, and magnesium.

It’s not clear whether vitamin D could help, but it’s certainly possible. There’s some compelling research that links low vitamin D levels to depression10.

During the winter months, it becomes more difficult — or even impossible in northern latitudes — for the body to produce enough vitamin D. In fact, if you live above the 34th parallel, your body probably won’t make any vitamin D during the winter months.11

The Bottom Line

Feeling sad? Give it some serious consideration — perhaps it’s not just the time of year. If your “holiday blues” persist, there may just be more to the story.


1. Encephale. 1996;22(2):143–8.
2. Psychiatry Res. 1990 Feb;31(2):131-44.
3. J Am Pharm Assoc (Wash). 1999;39(6):822–9.
4. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1997;54(4):375–85.
5. Am J Psychiatry. 1989;146(8):989–95.
6. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1990;47(4):356–64.
7. J Affect Disord. 1998;50(1):23–7.
8. Psychiatry Res. 1998a;77(1):57–61.
9. Pharmacopsychiatry. 1997;30(Suppl 2): 89–93.
10. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008 May;65(5):508-12.
11. Khalsa, Soram. Vitamin D Revolution. Hay House Publishing, 2009.


Emmanuel Lopez - Motivatorman said...

Thanks for this great overview on SAD. It's ideal for people needing an intro. Also love the Santa illustration!

Life Extension said...

Emmanuel Lopez - Motivatorman - Thanks for stopping by! Ha! Santa wasn't having a good day in that picture. :-)

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