For many, the fall is a time of excitement with the leaves bursting into colour, the air growing crisper, and the holidays just around the corner. But for others, it’s a time of dread.

Whether it’s the sadness of the greyer days, or the loneliness of seeing the kids leave the house, autumn often brings unwelcome changes and a drop in mood.

For others, fall is when the first signs of SAD, or seasonal affective disorder kick in.

Dr. Peter Bieling, director of the Mood Disorders Program at St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont. says many assume that SAD is a wintertime affliction, but in fact, it really begins kicking in early October, when the days have already begun to get shorter. He says those with SAD learn to dread the fall.

“It’s almost like a migraine aura. They get an ominous feeling because they know it’s coming,” he says.

SAD appears to be linked to declining light, which play around with our biological clocks that control our sleep-wake cycles. Patients often experience a steep drop in their mood marked by lethargy and sadness.

Doctors now recognize that for about 5 per cent of the population, SAD is a real condition with a clear, seasonal pattern. But Bieling says there is still so much that is not understood about the condition: Why are women more affected? Why does it not affect 100 per cent of those living in Nordic countries or Canada’s Far North? Why does it seem to lift so early in the spring, long before the first buds are out?

“So it’s clear it’s more complex than just shorter days,” he says.

The good news, he says, is that there is a treatment that works for many patients: light therapy.

For reasons that still aren’t quite clear, many SAD patients report that sitting in front of a light box in the early morning during the fall and winter helps to lift some of the clouds of depression.

“Light boxes work,” says Bieling, “Yes, it’s boring to sit there, but it’s a relatively easy treatment. It’s not expensive, there are no side effects.”

Bieling says it’s normal to feel some sadness as autumn moves in. He offers these tips to keep your spirits up throughout the season.

Get a checkup: If you suspect that your doldrums and lack of energy go beyond “the blues,” start with a visit to your doctor. You may be suffering from depression that would benefit from treatment. Or, if you notice a consistent seasonal pattern of your mood worsening every fall, and then lifting by the springtime, you could have SAD.

There are treatments that can help, and as Dr. Bieling says: “If you have SAD, you deserve to have it treated.”

Make a plan now to stay busy: Bieling advises those with the autumn blues to do all they can to not let themselves become housebound once the weather gets colder. Make plans to go out regularly for social engagements. Sign up for a class, or maybe start a new project at home to give you something to keep busy.

Exercise: Not only is exercise great for your heart, aerobic exercise can release lots of feel-good hormones that will last for hours after the workout. What’s more, all that moving around should help to tire you out physically so you can sleep better that night.

Go for early morning walks: The days are only getting shorter over the next few months, so take advantage of the sunshine while you can. Those with SAD are advised to wake with the sun and get outside for fresh air and exercise, and that’s good advice for anyone.

Eat well: It can be tempting to reach for comfort foods when feeling the blues, but make a plan so you won’t give into carb cravings. And if you like fish, try eating a little more. There is some research suggesting that Omega-3 fatty acids can help lift the mood. That may be why other studies show that people who eat a diet rich in fish are less likely to be depressed.

Plan a getaway: If you can afford it, Bieling advises taking a winter vacation somewhere sunny. Not only will the sunshine and relaxation be good for your mood, planning the trip will give you something to look forward to break up the long winter months to come.