Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Taken from Women and Horses, January / February 2006

Winter brings about a number of changes for many of us horse lovers. Blanketing, more stall time for horses who often run freely, buying hay instead of rotating off and on pasture, changing to a winter feed, less daylight riding time, frozen water pipes or iced water buckets–shall I go on? Okay, enough already you’ve got the picture!

Seasonal changes are often anticipated with a sense of excitement. Ever noticed how the advent of spring brings a smile to your face and a bounce to your step? Each approaching season conjures pleasant memories and fond visual images. It is as though a welcomed visitor is about to return to our lives. We ladies seem to find an opportunity to purchase a new outfit or perhaps a whole new wardrobe. Season-appropriate items are pulled out to decorate our homes and salute the returning guest.

Then why is it that after a few weeks of winter we find that some of the very things we so looked forward to are no longer appealing? Kind of like the guest who has worn out their welcome.

Unfortunately for millions of people–with women and younger persons being at greatest risk–winter brings about a type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Diagnosed by a recurring period of depression occurring between September and April (with December, January and February being most significant) for three or more consecutive winters, other symptoms include nighttime carbohydrate craving, weight gain, irritability, anxiety, tiredness, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts and decreased desire for sexual intimacy (Bauer, 1992/1993).


Many of these symptoms are also common in the general population making SAD a difficult disorder to pinpoint. There are, however, some identifiable differences attributable only to SAD, one being hypersomnia or oversleeping as much as four hours each day. As the daylight hours become longer during the spring months, SAD sufferers experience hypomania or over-activity. Sometimes we innocently perceive this as “Spring Fever.”

When speculating about the cause of SAD it is easy to see how shortened daylight hours can negatively impact mood. T he sun has always been revered as an ongoing source of inspiration and is honored and celebrated in many religions through the world. Its warmth and light sustains a delicate balance to the fragile lives of all things and people. It has been my experience in working with those who struggle with eating disorders that the warmth of the sun and the presence of a horse bring about a sense of peace unlike anything else.

Centuries ago Hippocrates hypothesized that pattern of dark and light contributed to mood stability. Yet, it has only been since the early 1980s that SAD was officially recognized by the medical community as a diagnosable disorder which is important for defining treatment strategies and validating the significance of the disorder. SAD is not just the winter blahs. It can be very serious and often disrupts everyday functioning and at its worst can lead to death. It is no surprise that child abuse occurs more frequently during the dark months.

SAD is extremely complex and fascinating. The brain has a unique way of regulating its circadian rhythm through the availability of light. Our circadian rhythm relies on light for its regulation of melatonin. The amount of meltonin that is secreted by the pineal glad is inversely related to the amount of light that is available. In other words, the more light that is received by the pineal gland during the day, the lower the amount of melatonin that is produced. Higher melatonin levels are thought to prepare us for rest and sleep. While several theories exist that offer explanations for the SAD phenomenon, it is speculated that increased levels of melatonin depresses our mood.

Geographically speaking, since the availability of light varies from area to area, it has been found that there is a measurable correlation between latitude and cases of SAD. For example, studies suggest that less than one percent of the general population is affected by SAD in Florida while the number in Alaska may be as high as ten percent. It’s estimated that five percent of the general U.S. population suffers from SAD.

There is hope and treatment for this potentially serious disorder. The most common form of treatment is BLT–no, not Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato, but Bright Light Therapy. It involves looking indirectly into a broad spectrum light for several hours each day for a few weeks. This reestablishes a balance that resets the circadian clock. Spending more time outdoors during the day is also a viable prescription. Antidepressants are in some cases prescribed as well; however, sometimes simply developing awareness of what is occurring in our life can bring about benefit and relief too.


Dr. Lynda Brogdon is a licensed psychologist, a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist through the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals, as well as a Certified Equine-Assisted Psychotherapist. She is a frequent contributor to Women and Horses magazine.