If you experience a lower mood in the darker months and an increased desire to eat and sleep, you might be suffering with SAD. Jenny Scott-Thompson of Seasonal Affective Disorder Association answers our biggest questions about the disorder.
Research has shown that 1 in 3 people in the UK can be affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Find out the signs and how best to treat SAD if you or someone close is affected by it.
What is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that affects an estimated half a million people every winter between September and April, in particular during November, December and January.
What causes SAD?
SAD is caused by a biochemical imbalance in an area of the brain called the hypothalamus due to the shortening of daylight hours and the lack of sunlight in winter.
This imbalance affects the production of melatonin, which makes us feel sleepy. People with SAD may produce more melatonin than normal and may also produce lower levels of serotonin, which can have a detrimental affect on mood, appetite and sleep quality.
Prolonged periods of dull weather may also trigger episodes of SAD throughout the year.
How is SAD different to depression?
SAD impacts people only at certain times of year, and tends to cause overeating and oversleeping rather than loss of appetite and insomnia.
What are the ‘winter blues’?
The winter blues are a milder version of SAD. Sufferers tend to feel low in December and January. It is also known as sub-syndromal SAD, and similar treatments are effective.
How is SAD treated?
Light therapy is the most effective and proven treatment for SAD. This involves using a medically tested lamp called a lightbox or SAD lamp – a bright light that simulates sunlight, without the UV rays.
When using a lightbox, place it 20-30cm away from your face and ensure the light enters the eye (you don’t have to stare directly at it). You could have it on your desk while you work or you may only need it on for half an hour in the morning. Don’t use it late at night, as this may stop you from sleeping.
Special daylight alarm clocks can also help – you might use one to help you get out of bed and then use your lightbox once you’re up. It works by simulating a natural sunrise and gradually gets brighter to wake you up as naturally as possible.
Psychotherapy including CBT, certain types of antidepressants, vitamin supplements (particularly vitamin D) and lifestyle changes such as outdoor exercise can all be helpful as part of a holistic treatment plan.
Always consult your GP before purchasing a lightbox or making any major lifestyle changes.
How do I know if I have SAD?
You will have experienced three or more winters of depression, lethargy, overeating and sleep problems, with remission in the summer.
There are other illnesses that can cause some similar symptoms, so it’s important to consult your GP and rule them out. You can also get a lightbox on a free trial through most GPs and see if it’s effective. If you have SAD, you are likely to see a major change within a week, whereas if the root cause is different, you won’t see much difference.
Are some people more likely than others to have SAD?
SAD affects us all differently. For reasons not yet concluded, more women than men are diagnosed with SAD – possibly because it’s more likely for women to talk about their mental wellbeing.
Those who live in dark, colder climates are more likely to develop SAD. People who live near the equator tend not to be affected and it’s common for those who move away to somewhere colder and darker to then get diagnosed with the disorder. In fact, just moving from a bright space to a darker space, such as changing office or moving to a house with a darker bedroom, can trigger SAD.
What else can I do to help myself cope with SAD?
Taking care of your health is important. Try to avoid too many sugary foods and keep eating your five-a-day fruit and veg. Regular exercise can be helpful, as can having a good sleep routine. Most importantly, make sure you have a good balance of work, social life and rest.
You could also try learning good mental health resilience techniques and tools such as CBT exercises and meditation, but remember not to put too much pressure on yourself during the hardest months.
When should I seek help?
If your symptoms are affecting your daily life, if you’re unable to do things you’d normally do or if you’re miserable or tired all the time, visit your GP.
What can I do to help someone with SAD?
Understand that their behaviour may change during the year as they manage their condition and support them in adapting to their routine.
Suggest things like accompanying them on a short walk in their lunch break or helping them cook healthy meals. Although they may turn down a few invitations in the winter, they will still want to socialise with you when spring comes.
For more information on SAD, click here.
For a quick mood boost, try these five functional foods suggested by nutritionist Amanda Hamilton.