How Seasonal Affective Disorder May Impact Eating Disorders

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There are seasons of life that are more triggering to eating disorders, and some of these are just that – the season. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), as the National Institute of Mental Health explains, presents as “significant changes in your mood and behavior whenever the season changes that are “more serious and can affect how a person feels, thinks, and handles daily activities [1].”

10% to 20% of people in the United States struggle with this disorder, and it is four times more common in women than in men [2]. While many people think of SAD more commonly around the transition to Fall and Winter, it can occur during any seasonal change.

Differences in Seasonal Affective Disorder Based on the Time of Year

In fact, one subtype of SAD is known as “summer depression” and occurs “begins in the late spring or early summer” and “may be related to changes in the amount of daylight we get [2].”

Regardless of the seasonal pattern of an individual’s SAD, appetite and eating changes are a major symptom. However, this presents differently depending on the season.

Those struggling with winter-pattern SAD are often seen to engage in over-eating with a particular craving for carbohydrates [1]. With summer-pattern SAD, individuals are often seen to have poor appetite and experience weight loss as opposed to weight gain [1].

This is where the relationship to disordered eating and eating disorders can come into play, with SAD appetite symptoms either resulting in eating disorder onset, relapse, or perpetuation.

SAD and Other Eating Disorders

Woman struggling with Seasonal Affective DisorderFood is often used as an ineffective coping skill, whether by binging or restricting, which is often seen in depression and SAD. Studies have explored the relationship between SAD and eating disorders and have found specific evidence to support that the two are linked.

One study learned that 27% of their respondents with eating disorders met criteria for SAD, with 86% of these having a Bulimia Nervosa (BN) diagnosis, 35% having an Anorexia Nervosa (AN) diagnosis, and 20% having an unspecified eating disorder diagnosis [3].

Other studies have determined that BN symptoms do increase during the winter seasons. The connection between Bulimia Nervosa (BN) and SAD would make sense, as “both show increased appetite and carbohydrate craving and probably share a common neurobiologic abnormality such as serotonergic dysfunction [3].”

There are many theories as to the causes of SAD, and those that relate to eating disorder neurobiology involve the neurotransmitter serotonin, melatonin levels, and possible Vitamin D deficiency [1].

Not only that, both individuals that struggle with SAD and eating disorder behaviors struggle with limiting, negative, and fear-based beliefs that often create a similarly fearful and hopeless reality.

Treatments that can support both disorders if they co-occur are light therapy, Vitamin D supplements, psychotherapy, and depression medications.

For those struggling with one or both of these disorders, this comorbidity is important to be aware of and speak with a mental health or medical professional about.


Resources:

[1] Unknown (2020). Seasonal affective disorder. National Institute of Mental Health, retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml.

[2] Unknown (2000). Seasonal affective disorder. American Family Physician, 1:61 (5).

[3] Ghadirian, A. (1997). Seasonal mood patterns in eating disorders. General Hospital Psychiatry, 21:5.


About the Author:

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published December 24, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on December 24, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

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