The Link Between Seasonal Affective Disorder and Eating Disorder Symptoms

Woman in snow considering Intuitive Eating

Contributor: Staff at McCallum Place

The change from summer to fall takes some adjusting to as our once long and sunny days become shorter. This brings out the “winter blues” for some, but for others, this change in season can introduce more severe symptoms of depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depressive disorder that is impacted by the seasons.

Typically, someone who is suffering from this disorder experiences an onset of symptoms during the fall and winter, with symptoms lessening in the spring and summer. However, there are some instances, albeit much less common, in which people will experience SAD symptoms during the spring and summer as opposed to during the fall and winter months.

Seasonal Affective Disorder presents with a variety of symptoms, including some that impact changes in eating behavior, such as heightened carbohydrate cravings, increased appetite, and hyperphagia (overeating). Studies continue to monitor the relationship between SAD and changes in eating habits, finding that SAD often co-occurs with eating disorders like bulimia and binge-eating disorder.

Overlap Between Seasonal Affective Disorder and Eating Disorders

A large number of those diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder are women in their early 20s. This is the same demographic as those commonly diagnosed with eating disorders like binge-eating disorder and bulimia.

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Studies showed that 24.4% of women who had SAD also met the criteria for binge-eating disorder. From a group of individuals diagnosed with binge-eating disorder, 26% reported a winter pattern of binge eating [1].

Nearly 35% of those who had bulimia also met the criteria for SAD. Individuals who were struggling with bulimia also reported worsening moods, weight gain, and more severe bingeing and purging episodes in the fall and winter [1].

Why Winter Causes Changes in Mood and Eating Patterns

From September to May, much of the country experiences colder temperatures and shorter days due to less sunlight. Exposure to sunlight is essential for our bodies to produce appropriate amounts of natural chemicals for regulating mood, appetite, and sleep.

Many are aware that the sun helps the body produce Vitamin D, boosting mood and energy levels. But exposure to sunlight does much more than that, influencing a number of natural chemicals within the body.

The transmission of both serotonin and dopamine can vary with the seasons and can be linked to Seasonal Affective Disorder and eating disorder symptoms [1]. Serotonin, known as the feel-good chemical, affects the mood and increases with exposure to sunlight. During winter, it’s possible that the brain is not producing enough serotonin, resulting in an increased risk of SAD.

Dopamine signaling could affect the onset of binge-eating behavior associated with both eating disorders and SAD. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that sends messages between nerve cells, influencing the way the body feels pleasure. Increased dopamine signaling could promote winter binge eating by strengthening the relationship between carbohydrate foods and the pleasant effect they produce [1].

The decrease in sunlight in the winter also contributes to changes in melatonin production. Darkness is responsible for producing melatonin, the naturally occurring substance that makes us tired and regulates the body’s sleep cycle.

Woman struggling with Seasonal Affective DisorderDuring the winter, when we experience more darkness, the body produces more melatonin, which can lead to disturbed sleep patterns and increased daytime drowsiness. This can contribute to the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder and possible co-occurring eating disorders.

Aside from chemical disturbances in our bodies, winter also causes some lifestyle changes to take place. The cold weather brought on by winter causes much of the northern region to retreat indoors. This can lead to decreased activity levels that could cause weight gain, even less exposure to natural light, and more exposure to artificial light that can further disrupt the sleep cycle.

How to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder

Eating disorders that appear to be brought on or worsened by a change in seasons could be linked to seasonal affective disorder and can often be improved by treating SAD in addition to the eating disorder.

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder to watch for include:

  • Depression that begins during a specific season and ends when another season starts
  • Suffering from depression symptoms most often in the winter
  • Lethargy or lack of energy
  • Loss of interest in once enjoyable activities or in socializing
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Irritability
  • Increased appetite
  • Changes in weight
  • Cravings for carbohydrates
  • Sluggishness

Like eating disorder treatment, Seasonal Affective Disorder treatment consists of several different techniques.

Light therapy has proved very promising in reducing the severity of symptoms in those who have SAD. Light therapy helps regulate the body’s natural sleep cycle to boost the mood and increase energy. The onset or worsening of eating disorder symptoms could also be alleviated as the symptoms of SAD improve.

Light therapy works best when paired with other treatment methods. If you are struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder and co-occurring eating disorders, professional help is available.


References:

[1] Donofry, S. D.; Roecklein, K. A.; Rohan, K. J.; Wildes, J. E.; and Kamarck, M. L. (2014). Prevalence and correlates of binge eating in seasonal affective disorder. Psychiatry research, 217(1-2), 47–53. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2014.03.012


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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 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 on February 4, 2021. Published on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on February 4, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.