Down With the Darkness: Determining Whether It's Seasonal Affective Disorder or MS

Friday, Dec 21st is the date of the winter solstice in 2018. It occurs when the sun is at its southernmost position causing the fewest hours of daylight in the Northern Hemisphere. It is also the first day of winter.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Compared to the dark clouds of smoke from wildfires our friends in the western US have lived with this year, it almost seems petty to complain about the vanishing hours of sunlight and lengthening nights as winter fast approaches. But for many, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can cause serious depression and make the challenges of chronic illness harder to manage.

Singing the dying light blues

While writing a song about the dark side of winter might be tempting, SAD is more serious and longer-lasting than having a case of the blues. The Mayo Clinic qualifies it as depression triggered by seasonal changes. Though the lengthening darkness of fall-winter days are the most common time of year for SAD, it can also happen during the spring-summer part of the year, though the latter is somewhat rare.

Symptoms of winter SAD include:

  • Sleeping longer than is needed
  • Craving more carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Low energy and tiredness

Symptoms of spring-summer SAD are the opposite of those.

General SAD symptoms can include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy
  • Having problems with sleeping
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide


You don’t have to live with these symptoms, help is available. You don’t have to experience all of the above to alert your medical team that you are suffering, either. Matt Cavallo, MPH, author of "4 Symptoms Seasonal Affective Disorder and MS Have in Common," points out those four symptoms as being:

Cavallo emphasizes timing is of utmost importance when seeking help from your doctors. All four symptoms can lead us to withdraw and isolate ourselves, thereby deepening our troubled feelings. Moodiness, irritability, and lack of sleep can negatively affect our decision-making. Before we start down that road, reaching out to our neurologist puts the ball in their court to distinguish whether MS or SAD is causing those problems. Your doc might want to order tests for further evaluation. Treatments could be different depending on what’s causing them. The bottom line is that it’s not a great idea to tough it out on your own.

Examine your history of symptom changes

Cavallo also suggests that you might determine whether your worsened symptoms are from SAD or MS by thinking back over your history of symptom changes. If your symptoms worsened routinely during the winter months, that can be a strong indication that light deficiency has triggered your fatigue, sleep disorder, concentration problem, and mood shifts. Here are some things he recommends to try and lessen those symptoms:

Step outside and soak up some rays.

Stepping outside can immediately make us more alert, less moody, and help us stay awake longer so we sleep better at night.

Eat healthy and get more active.

Winter holidays tempt us to overeat and sit around too much.

Try light therapy.

There are special bulbs that simulate natural light. Anecdotal and study evidence show this kind of exposure can improve energy, mood, and cognitive function.

Living with multiple sclerosis is challenging enough without seasonal forces throwing us off our game even more. If you suspect that winter is getting you down, contact a trusted resource and ask for help. Have faith that it will be there if you reach out. And remember that light and warmth are just around the corner. March will be here before you know it!

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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