No one knows exactly what causes eating disorders. Researchers think it’s a combination of factors, including genetics, psychological health, significant life changes, and a negative self-image. Those who are experiencing an eating disorder or recovering from one may find the winter months more challenging. Why is this? Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between seasonal affective disorder and eating disorders.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression. With SAD, symptoms occur during certain times of the year. For most, the depression sets in during the fall and continues through the winter months. Some might try to brush off SAD as the winter blues, but in reality, it is depression and should be taken seriously.

Signs and Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Winter onset SAD symptoms usually start mildly, then progress as the winter continues. Symptoms typically resolve themselves with the arrival of spring.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • Feeling sad most of the time.
  • Losing interest in previously enjoyed activities and hobbies.
  • Thoughts of suicide.
  • Fatigue.
  • Oversleeping.
  • Changes in appetite and food cravings.
  • Changes in weight.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Feeling agitated.
  • Feeling hopeless or guilty.

Not everyone will have every symptom.

Seasonal affective disorder and eating disorders can be treated.

Photo by Zhang Kenny on Unsplash

Causes and Risk Factors for SAD

Researchers don’t know the specific reasons why people develop seasonal affective disorder. There are a few potential factors, though. These include:

  • Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone associated with sleep. Melatonin is released after dark and helps make people sleepy. Melatonin levels start to spike around 9 p.m. and decrease by around 9 a.m. The lower levels of light in the winter might disrupt melatonin production.
  • Circadian rhythm: Even with all the time we spend indoors, our bodies still respond to cycles of light and darkness. For some, the lack of light confuses our internal clocks, leading to feelings of depression and fatigue.
  • Serotonin: Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood. Researchers think that the lack of sunlight might cause lower levels of serotonin, which in turn causes depression.

Researchers have found a few factors that increase the risk of developing SAD. These include:

  • Location: Understandably, the further away from the equator someone lives, the more likely they are to develop SAD. Those further away from the equator see more of the extremes when it comes to seasonal light and darkness.
  • A history of depression: Those who already have depression or bipolar disorder may see a seasonal increase in symptoms.
  • Family history: Those who have relatives with SAD or another type of depression are more likely to develop SAD.

Seasonal Affective Disorder and Eating Disorders

Both of these conditions are serious. When the two intersect, it presents additional challenges. For those who are receiving treatment for an eating disorder, an essential first step is sharing the changes in their mood and eating patterns with a member of their treatment team. Those who haven’t started formal treatment for an eating disorder should consider starting. Many types of treatment are available, including residential and outpatient. Talking with a trusted friend, family member, or medical professional is a great place to start.

When it comes to treating SAD and eating disorders, professionals will likely try to treat both conditions simultaneously. One recognized treatment for SAD is light therapy. Light therapy involves sitting in front of a special light box first thing in the morning from fall until spring. This helps to reset your circadian rhythm and regulate melatonin. Light therapy can be a big help, and it becomes a natural part of a morning routine.

Other treatments for SAD overlap with recommended treatments for eating disorders. Antidepressants may help both conditions. Keep in mind that it takes time to find the right antidepressant, and many people have to try a few before finding the right one.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is another option for treating both conditions. In CBT, people work with a therapist to recognize negative thought patterns and replace those thoughts with positive thoughts that better serve them. With both SAD and eating disorders, learning to recognize those thought patterns and reframe them can make an immense difference when it comes to one’s quality of life.

The best option for treating seasonal affective disorder and eating disorders is a treatment program experienced in working with people who have a dual diagnosis. A dual diagnosis means that someone has a combination of conditions that need to be addressed, such as binge eating disorder and depression or bulimia and bipolar disorder.

A dual diagnosis might seem overwhelming, but there is help and hope available. It all starts with a small but significant step: talking to someone you trust about how you’re feeling. Things can and will get better. Spring is just a few months away.

Melinda Sineriz is a freelance writer and fat acceptance advocate. Read more of her thoughts on Twitter or visit her website to learn more.