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Seasonal Affective Not a Disorder

By Sara Calabro

Holidays, whether fun or stressful, are nothing if not distracting. With them now past, people may notice the return of emotional symptoms that surfaced just before the holiday season began. The biomedical community calls this SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, a condition that describes mood shifts associated with changing seasons.

Acupuncturists call it normal.

CNN, reporting yesterday on the condition, says SAD usually flares up when daylight savings ends, around the beginning of November. This is consistent with acupuncture theory, which denotes fall as the season of Lung, the body system associated with sadness and grief. Acupuncturists, however, view this predisposition to sadness in fall as a natural reaction to the seasonal shift rather than a cause for concern—or antidepressants.

In acupuncture theory, human beings are viewed as microcosms of nature. They are intimately affected by their surroundings, which includes the changing seasons. A tendency toward sadness, a pulling inward, is appropriate as the weather turns harsh. It’s when a patient is unable to settle into the emotional change, or transition out of it, that an acupuncturist might suspect an imbalance.

In Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine, a great book for understanding the tenets of acupuncture theory, the authors say, “The climates, emotions, and activities of life are not intrinsically good or bad. It is their excess or deficiency that distorts the pattern of flow.”

Acupuncturists think in terms of interconnected systems, so excessive sadness, for example, affects the Lungs—the organ, as well as the meridian, and associated structures (skin is one) and functions. This explains why fall is such a popular time for the onset of respiratory infections and dry skin that often linger into winter.

Acupuncturists tend to place special emphasis on the fall because it’s a pivotal time of transition from the more active seasons into the more passive. Regular acupuncture treatments in the fall prepare the body for smooth entrance into winter, during which treatments help maintain immune strength and emotional balance.

Likening human health to a garden which acupuncturists help sustain throughout the seasons, the authors of Between Heaven and Earth say, “The gardener…is like the acupuncturist when he builds fences, digs ditches, ponds, and channels for irrigation, adjusting the flow of water and wind.”

In other words, acupuncture guides the body toward optimal functioning by addressing our propensities in a given season. However, optimal functioning does not exclude a tendency toward passivity and inward reflection, naturally accompanied by feelings of grief and fear, during fall and winter. These are normal emotions for this time of year.

Because these feelings are in contrast to how we feel in warmer months—and because mainstream medicine and media tend to demonize them—it is easy to mistake them for depression. But actually, in the majority of cases, a turn inward during the darker and colder seasons is in concert with our natural state of being, a sign of health rather than disorder.

Photo by Sara Calabro


Ben Fleisher

I re-posted this article on my FB page, because I’ve always been struck by this new medical diagnosis, SAD. At first, I had a very similar reaction to this article, SAD is part of the natural cycle of things, it is the hibernation of the soul… I also, though, have come to realize that it can be a bit more than that. Particularly exacerbated by living in urban environments, spending hours in front of artificial light that doesn’t supply the essential ingredients and byproducts thereof that sunlight does, living in concrete worlds removed from the naturally healing radiation of the earth… all these things, combined with genetic propensitites, familial traditions, and diets based on genetically depleted foods, leaves many of us with a not-so-mild experience of winter blues… I’m no advocate of western medications, nor any symptom-suppressing treatments, but I do think it wise to take a minute here and offer a few more suggestions. Light therapy, Vitamin D supplements, a regular diet of organic phyto-nutrients, regular exercise, acupuncture or other effective wellness treatments… all of these truly help, whether you’re SAD or just plain sad.


Really great additional thoughts, Ben. I agree completely and appreciate you pointing these things out. Acupuncture is far from a panacea or the last word on this. It’s one of many modalities that can help address what for many people is a genuine struggle. Sometimes just the mere presentation of alternate ways of looking at things can be therapeutic, so the more perspectives the better! Thanks for reading.

Chris Primavera

Personally I love the winter. I too think of it as a time for hibrination. It’s ok to stay in and just read or be creative. At the same time, I recognize that some people are very SAD in the winter, so I agree with Ben, exercise, especially out in the cold can really help.
It’s great to read an article that recognizes this as a part of the natural cycle of life. We should just welcome it with open arms, and see where it takes us.


Go ahead and dress up ablism in a naturalistic fallacy, and further embed the stigma against mental illness in our society. I guess I literally just need to walk it off.

Exercise helps, but can’t always do enough. It is a major failure of empathy to assume people who use drugs to stay functional are dupes. Conventional medicine is no picnic, since you only need it when you’re sick.


Hi SA,

Thanks for your feedback. This article was in no way intended to further stigmatize mental illness, and no where does it state or imply that people who need medication are dupes. Quite the contrary. The intent was to point out that there are other ways of viewing seasonal mood changes so that 1) people who do not need or want to be on medications can consider other options and 2) people who are legitimate candidates for conventional medicine such as antidepressants can get the care they need and deserve.



Great article ,many thanks for posting .
Was particularly struck by Ben Fleishers comments.
As one who is affected by SAD, I agree with his take on it and am a great proponent for light therapy.
don’t know where i would be without my “happy light”
Many thanks to all who bring up the topic at this time of the year.
Sure there are many out there who suffer from SAD and do nothing about it.


Hi Paul,

Thanks for reading, and glad to hear you’re having success with light therapy. My focus is acupuncture so I can’t speak intelligently about supplements. But good idea to put out the question—perhaps a reader will be able to share some Vit D recommendations.

Happy Holidays!



By the way.
not being an expert of Vitamins. When choosing a “D” supplement can you offer a suggestion?

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