It's the Holiday Season....why you so SAD?

When winter rolls around....

We all know the friends and family that say every winter that they are moving south.  They can't stand the weather or the snow or having to dress up in more layers than grandma's lasagna.  Some people actually do it and make the move to Florida, Texas, Arizona or some sunshine state.  For the rest it is a hollow threat that is blocked by the warm kindling of holiday aura or they are just too SAD.  

SAD stands for seasonal affective disorder

SAD is type of depression that one experiences due to the changes in the season.  If you are like most people, your symptoms begin and last throughout the winter season and this is referred to Fall and Winter SAD--much more common than its counterpart Spring and Summer SAD.  The result is a sapping of the body of energy, decreasing motivation and self image.  For some, this starts a cycle of depression that can last into the spring and even the summer!  Having said that, don't brush it off!  There are things you can do!

The Problem

Serotonin production falls off the charts! It is impossible to understand all the reasons why in every person but the most common denominator that is used to explain this problem in each person is sunlight.  This leads to poor choices in diet, sleep and exercise patterns.  Couple that with poor eating and drinking habits for the holidays and we have a bomb about to go off by January.   Symptoms include:

  • Irritability
  • Tiredness or low energy
  • Problems getting along with other people
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection
  • Heavy, "leaden" feeling in the arms or legs
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain

Being indoors for months of the year is a relatively new phenomenon for the history of humans.  Even for those composes strictly of the most Nordic blood, sun exposure for at least a couple hours per day was unavoidable a thousand or so years ago.  To describe, if you have ever been in a snow covered field on a sunny day, you know how bright that can be, which was probably somewhat protective against SAD for primitive Nordic populations.  I bet the   

The Facts

Everyone should preemptively fight winter SAD as it is a serious cause or accelerator of many diseases linked to depression: 

  • Insomnia (change in Serotonin and Melatonin levels due to sunlight)
  • Diabetes 
  • Heart Disease
  • Obesity
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Substance abuse including tobacco and alcohol
  • Low Vitamin D levels

Who is at the greatest risk?

  • Females--Women have a higher incidence of SAD than men, however men have more severe symptoms
  • Younger patients--The elderly are not as commonly affected by SAD, however smaller changes can have graver consequences (e.g. over-eating, blood pressure increase, insomnia episode.)
  • Family History -- patients with SAD are more likely to have a blood relative with SAD
  • Having Clinical Depression or Bi-Polar disorder
  • Living Far From the Equator-- This one is obvious but is a serious area of inquiry in a many studies currently


Light Therapy

Light therapy mimics natural light and appears to cause change in brain chemicals linked to mood.  It is considered the first line therapy for SAD and has positive effects within days. 

Get the Serotonin pumping....naturally

Serotonin production increase is associated with numerous activities including but not limited to: exercise, playing musical instrument, listening to music, socializing with friends, get a massage or other form of body work, take a couple days south to get some rays, quit smoking (tobacco, marijuana), and sex are just a few.  

Get the Serotonin pumping.....with Medications

Because SAD is largely believed to be associated with a decrease in serotonin, SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) are often relied on before natural intervention or if other interventions fail.  Medications like Lexapro, Prozac and Zoloft are commonly tried in addition to other antidepressants such as Wellbutrin.  

The Solution

Make your home brighter

For just a few dollars, you can transform the lighting in your home for a fresh new feel that will naturally improve your serotonin production.  Check out all of these full spectrum bulbs! 

Get Outside

There are always fun activities in the winter that can allow you to get some exercise and the rays that you have been missing.  Check out the Zoo, walk to get coffee or hot chocolate so you have a nice warm drink on the walk back, find a cross-country ski park, find an outdoor skating rink, or find a curling court.  For the best results get your 20-30 minutes outside within 2 hours or waking up in the morning.  Even on a cloudy winter day, you can still get many of the essential sun-rays your brain is craving.


Exercise and other types of physical activity both improve SAD symptoms.  In addition, being more fit can improve self image and motivation which will certainly help mood.  

Get Plenty of Vitamin D

Vitamin D is produced naturally when we are exposed to sunlight.  When that is not possible or not enough, our levels crash within 5 days!  The farther you are from the equator, the more vitamin D you should be consuming during the winter months.  I recommend all of my patients to be on at least 1,000IU daily with dinner until they get an actual vitamin D level.  You can find Vitamin -D 1,000 IU here: 


About the Author


KIRK HEIL, PHARMD is a pharmacist, investor and former founder of Lagom Rx.