The link between Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) and substance abuse is well documented. People with SAD tend to be more sensitive to changes in their environments than those without the condition. As a result, some researchers believe that SAD makes people more vulnerable to developing addictions.1
During days with lower winter light, when the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder present themselves, people will self-medicate with psychoactive substances like alcohol or other illicit drugs.
In this article, we will explore the nature of Seasonal Affective Disorder and how it can relate to addiction.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD is a type of depression that occurs during the winter months. It can be triggered by seasonal changes such as shorter days, lower temperatures, and less sunlight. People who suffer from SAD often report feeling depressed, lethargic, and anxious throughout the entire winter months. They also tend to have more difficulty sleeping and concentrating than usual, and they may feel irritable and angry.
Symptoms of SAD usually begin after the fall equinox and last through the spring equinox. The symptoms of SAD vary depending on which region you live in. In the northern hemisphere, wintertime tends to be the most challenging time regarding mental health.
Some people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, every year. Others may only experience it occasionally. For some, the transition into shorter days or a colder climate triggers feelings of depression and hopelessness.
Symptoms and Effects of SAD and Seasonal Depression
People who suffer from SAD may experience:
- Low energy
- Increased appetite
- Difficulty falling asleep at night
- Irritability and anger
- Decreased interest in activities that used to bring pleasure
- Trouble concentrating
- Thoughts of suicide
- Feelings of sadness and loneliness
- Changes in mood
- Weight gain
- Lack of motivation
- Loss of libido
- Poor concentration
- Muscle aches
- Tingling sensations
- Dry mouth
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
Risk Factors for SAD
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a real problem for people who live in areas where the sun is blocked out for long periods each year. SAD is caused by a number of factors, including lack of sunlight, unhealthy foods, stress, chemical toxins in the environment, and many more.3
SAD and Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to Seasonal Affective Disorders. Research shows that people who have low vitamin D levels are more likely to develop Seasonal Affective Disorder. This is because vitamin D helps regulate serotonin production in the brain. Serotonin is one of the chemicals that causes us to feel happy. If there is not enough serotonin in your body, you may find yourself experiencing depressive episodes.
In addition to helping regulate serotonin, vitamin D also regulates the activity of melatonin, another hormone that plays an important role in regulating sleep patterns. When we don’t get enough vitamin D, our bodies produce less melatonin. Melatonin helps regulate our circadian rhythms, which means that we go to bed earlier and wake up later during the dark hours of winter.
SAD and Substance Abuse Disorders
During the long, dark nights of the fall and winter, many people turn to substances such as alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, or even prescription drugs to help them cope with the lack of sunlight.5
However, using alcohol or drugs may make the symptoms of SAD even worse, so long term self-medicating may set you on a path to a substance use disorder.
People who suffer from mental illness are much more likely than other people to also have a substance use problem. And about 50% of all people with a substance use disorder also have or are at risk for a mental health disorder.6
Although using drugs and alcohol may temporarily relieve the symptoms of SAD, they won’t address the root cause of the problem—a lack of sunlight exposure. As such, the cycle continues. People who suffer from SAD are at higher risk of developing substance abuse issues. While this isn’t always the case, research suggests that people who experience SAD tend to engage in risky behaviors such as drinking excessively, smoking marijuana, using cocaine, and taking illegal drugs.
Common Treatments and Prevention for SAD
If you’ve been diagnosed with SAD, there may be several treatment options available to help you manage your condition. Some of these include:7
Light therapy involves exposing yourself to bright light at certain times during the day. Light therapy has been shown to improve mood and sleep patterns in patients with SAD. However, it isn’t always easy to implement because it requires being exposed to sunlight or using special lighting devices.
Some antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) work by increasing serotonin activity in the brain. This helps reduce feelings of sadness and improves sleep quality. There are several different types of antidepressant medication available, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, tricyclic antidepressants, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, and others.
Another type of treatment for SAD is psychotherapy. Psychotherapists help clients identify what triggers their negative thoughts, figure out how to cope better with them, and learn ways to manage stress. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one form of psychotherapy that focuses on identifying and changing unhelpful and stressful thought processes.
Let Schick Shadel Help with Addiction During This Season
Schick Shadel Hospital offers one of the most effective treatment programs to help patients overcome addiction. Our highly trained and experienced staff will work closely with you to develop a personalized plan to achieve long-term sobriety.
- American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2013
- National Institute of Mental Health. (2016). Seasonal Affective Disorder.
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – Symptoms and causes. (2021). Retrieved November 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651
- Eserian, J. (2013). Vitamin D as an effective treatment approach for drug abuse and addiction. Journal Of Medical Hypotheses And Ideas, 7(2), 35-39. doi: 10.1016/j.jmhi.2013.02.001
- Kelly, T. M., & Daley, D. C. (2013). Integrated treatment of substance use and psychiatric disorders. Social work in public health, 28(3-4), 388-406.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Comorbidity: Substance Use Disorders and Other Mental Illnesses.
- Desan, P., et al. (2007). A controlled trial of the Litebook light-emitting diode (LED) light therapy device for treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). BMC Psychiatry, 7(38).