Seasonal Depression: Stay on Track in Eating Disorder Recovery

Walking in the Spring

Seasonal depression is more than just feeling tired when winter sets in. Shorter daylight and the start of fall and winter can trigger seasonal affective disorder for many individuals. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depressive disorder that occurs from fall/winter until spring time. Approximately 5% of individuals in the United States are affected by SAD [1].

How is SAD Different?

SAD is a clinical disorder, a form of depression that follows seasonal patterns. Many of the symptoms are similar to that of depression, such as low moods, lack of motivation, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, and fatigue [1].

Those with SAD, however, typically will sleep and eat more, with potential weight gain. Those who are diagnosed with clinical depression will tend to have more difficulty sleeping, and loss of appetite and can have suicidal ideation.

Research has shown that if individuals live closer to the north or south poles, that it increases the risk of SAD, to include women, people in their 20s, individuals with family history of SAD, and those that already have major depression or bipolar diagnosis [1].

Even with changing seasons and SAD symptoms, it is still not fully understood why SAD is caused. Some researchers feel that it could be the changes in melatonin with the seasons, that can trigger your body to sleep [1].

Some think that melatonin is continued to be produced later in the morning during winter months because the sun rises later. This can increase the feelings of tiredness, grogginess when they need to be awake.

Treatment for SAD

The first treatment is light therapy and involves sitting in front of a specific source of light for 30 minutes up to 2 hours per day after waking for the day. Often SAD lights are used which filter out most ultraviolet rays.

Girls looking at the fall leavesThe idea behind light therapy is that it turns off the melatonin production and shifts the brain chemicals into normal functioning [1]. This type of therapy is cautioned however because, for those that also have co-occurring bipolar, it can increase manic episodes [1].

Another line of treatment is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and in a recent study on almost 200 participants, that used light CBT for six weeks compared to another group that used light therapy, and within two seasons, the CBT group fared more positively [1].

A third type of therapy is melatonin pills. This pill can be used in the afternoon or early evening to help balance the melatonin in the brain.

This is still under investigation for use and effectiveness. SAD, in the DSM-V is classified as Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern, which strengthens the seasonal effect on individuals prone to depressive symptoms [2].

How to Stay on Track

One way is to track and pay attention to seasonal patterns in mood. This can help with knowing when to seek professional help and treatment throughout the year.

Also being aware of symptoms that come with SAD. Decreased energy and lethargy, increased sleep and difficulty walking are common. Isolating from friends, and loved ones as well as loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities.

Increased appetite and weight gain are common as well with SAD. Feeling a persistent sadness and hopelessness, and struggling with concentration and memory.

With disruption in eating as a symptom of SAD, it can also trigger or disrupt eating disorder behaviors as well.

Studies have shown that those with SAD experiences more cravings for food that are higher in carbohydrates and rich in starch than those who are depressed, anxious, or lonely [2]. This can increase binge eating episodes in those that struggle with this disorder.

It can also be a component of bulimia as well. Research has also shown that those with bulimia also have seasonal patterns of mood and appetite similar to those with SAD.


Researchers theorize that this could be due to a genetic link between eating disorders and changes in mood with seasonal patterns [2].

In addition to light therapy, anti-depressant medications can be helpful in treating SAD. This family of drugs can help with improvement in mood, energy, and sleep patterns.

Making an appointment with your psychiatrist can help you prepare prior to fall and winter, the best medication for your treatment. Checking in is also recommended if you are already on medication of choice.

CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy has shown to be useful for behavioral and negative thinking patterns. It can help decrease some of the seasonal depression as well.

Making plans to be around family and friends as well as attending activities with loved ones can help lift mood and keep exercise regular.

Get outside during daylight hours and practice self-care activities, such as yoga, mindfulness, and meditation. Be leary of social media and use of technology excessively during the fall and winter months.

Work with your therapist on a proper sleep schedule and sleep routine. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time daily. Lastly, avoid alcohol and substances if possible. These can act as depressants and worsen symptoms.

Stay positive and focused on the events or holidays that you are looking forward to with fall and winter approaching. Try to stay mindful in the season and not wish the months away. Look for the small and exciting joys that these upcoming months can bring.

Remember to ask for help when needed, seek professional help when you feel you need it, and rally your support system around you to keep you active during the fall and winter.

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.

Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is a Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.


[1] Seasonal Affective Disorder: Managing the Winter Blues. (n.d.). Retrieved August 26, 2017, from
[2] Seasonal Depression: Fall-ing into Winter. (n.d.). Retrieved August 26, 2017, from

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer 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 on December 10, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on December 10, 2017.
Published on