Feeling Inexplicably SAD? Winter May be to Blame

December is Seasonal Affective Disorder Awareness Month

Seasonal affective disorder (aptly also known as SAD) is a form of depression typically caused by hormonal changes in the body stemming from a lack of sunlight. Though some people experience seasonal affective disorder in the summer, the vast majority of cases are experienced in fall and winter when the days get shorter.

As the seasons change, the temperatures dip and the days darken, it is natural for people to occasionally feel sad, but for some, the disorder can be debilitative and significantly impact their daily lives.

Because SAD is brought on by a change in seasons, it tends to begin and end at about the same times every year. Symptoms of SAD include those of major depressive disorder such as tiredness, listlessness, hopelessness and lack of interest in things previously enjoyed. Depression can lead to weight gain, excessive sleep or drowsiness, and social withdrawal.

What Causes Seasonal Depressive Disorder?

The reduction in sunlight can trigger a chemical change in the brain resulting in a decrease of serotonin, which may affect your mood. Additionally, longer nights tend to naturally increase the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin, and that may also play in a role in the onset of SAD.

How Depressed is Iowa and Minnesota?

A recent study conducted by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of commercially insured people, found that Iowa and Minnesota have higher rates of depression than similar populations in many sunnier states in the southwest and southeast. In fact, five percent of commercially insured Iowans and six percent of commercially insured Minnesotans suffer from major depressive disorder compared to 4.4% of all BCBS members. They also found that women were twice as likely as men to suffer from major depressive order.

Depression and Your Overall Health

The study found that “people diagnosed with major depression are twice as likely to also suffer from one or more other chronic diseases, three times as likely to suffer from pain-related disorders and injuries, and seven times as likely to suffer from alcohol or substance use disorders than people who do not have major depression.” According to the National Institute of Health, adults with a depressive disorder have a 64 percent greater risk of developing coronary artery disease. (National Institute of Health, Heart disease and depression: A two-way relationship, 2017)

Seasonal vs. Clinical Mental Depression

What’s the difference between SAD and general depression? The main difference is that while depressive episodes can occur anytime during the year, SAD occurs (and recurs) in seasonal patterns.

Major depression or major depressive disorder is the most common mental disorder in the United States According to the National Institute for Mental Health, about 20.1 million people in the USA had at least one major depressive episode of two weeks or more in 2020. That number represents over 8.4% of the adult population. Major depressive episodes were higher among females (10.5%) to males (6.2%) and more prominent in younger adults aged 18-25.

Major depression is characterized by constant feelings of sadness or emptiness, and it may be triggered by certain events or co-exist with other illnesses. It isn’t the same as depression caused by a loss, such as the death of a loved one, or a medical condition, such as a thyroid disorder.

Symptoms of Major depression

Symptoms of major depression include:

• Feeling sad or hopeless
• Loss of interest in normal activities
• Crying spells
• Trouble sleeping
• Trouble concentrating
• Irritability
• Fatigue
• Aches and pains
• Suicidal thoughts

What Causes Major Depression:

Like other psychological disorders, the cause of depression is not specifically known, but it is believed to be a combination of genetic, biological and environmental factors. Depression often occurs with other illnesses, including anxiety disorders, substance abuse, heart disease, stroke and cancer.


Although depression can be a serious condition, it is highly treatable. It is important to talk to a doctor if you are experiencing symptoms to help prevent the condition from worsening. Treatment of depression typically includes medication and psychotherapy. Following effective treatment methods can help make depression a manageable and much less dangerous condition.

Newly, approved breakthrough treatments can provide rapid relief and can be effective even when other medications fail.

To learn more about Mason City Clinic psychiatry services, please call 641.494.5170

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