More Than the ‘Winter Blues’: Identifying Seasonal Affective Disorder

As the days turn colder and the hours of daylight shorten, many of us can feel a difference in our bodies and minds. It’s natural to have a physiological reaction to the onset of cold weather months, especially in Iowa where winter seems to last for months upon end.

More than just the ‘winter blues,’ seasonal affective disorder (SAD) describes prolonged mood and motivation changes, feelings of depression and fatigue that coincides with seasonal weather changes.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 5% of adults in the U.S. experience SAD. It typically lasts 40% of the year and is especially prevalent in populations who live far from the equator where wintertime daylight hours are scarce. It affects women more than men.

What Causes SAD?

The Mayo Clinic identifies three factors that can contribute to a SAD diagnosis. Each factor is keenly related to the availability of sunlight.

  • Circadian rhythm. The decrease in sunlight during the fall and winter months can disrupt a body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels. Serotonin is a brain chemical that affects mood. When there is reduced access to sunlight, it can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
  • Melatonin levels. The change in seasons can disrupt the balance of melatonin, a naturally produced chemical that plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

It’s also worth noting an individual or family history of depression or other brain health (mental health) disorder can increase your risk of SAD.

Coming Out of the Dark to Seek Help

How can we — as friends, caretakers and family — recognize the onset of SAD in others or ourselves? It’s normal to have some days when we don’t feel like ourselves. But if those days start to outnumber the days where you enjoy daily activities, it’s time to speak with a brain health professional or seek resources close to you.

The Iowa Mental Health and Disability Services (MHDS) Regions provide a continuum of services that lead individuals to better brain health. Any Iowan in any community can utilize MDHS brain health services.

Our team of experts can connect individuals with screening to help diagnose SAD or the onset of depression. We can help connect individuals to clinicians and experts who have innovative ways to treat SAD through light therapy, counseling and more. We can also point those struggling in the direction of a counselor or therapist.

Reach out to Iowa’s MHDS Regions today at or by calling the Your Life Iowa line at 855-581-8111 or texting 855-895-8398.