SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)
Every year, as the days become short and dark, people with SAD develop a predictable set of symptoms.
- They slow down and find it hard to get up in the morning.
- Energy levels dip, they eat more, especially carbohydrates, and may gain weight.
- SAD affects concentration and productivity in work or school.
- It causes a loss of interest or pleasure in many activities.
- People who live with SAD, as with other forms of depression, often become less social and withdraw from their friends and family.
- Other symptoms include: negative thinking, despair, apathy and fatigue.
- The symptoms may last for four or five months until the days become longer again.
“Winter Blues” are a milder form of seasonal disorder, producing similar symptoms of decreased energy and increased appetite. It can also affect mood, concentration, enthusiasm and productivity but to a lesser extent. People with SAD report sleeping an average of 2.5 hours more in winter than in the summer, whereas people with winter blues report sleeping 1.5 hours more.
Like other forms of depression SAD may be triggered by a traumatic life event such as a serious illness, bereavement, loss or physical assault. Other triggers could be a change to medication, diet, drug or alcohol use.
The Effects of Light
When light hits the retina, messages are passed to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that rules sleep, appetite, sex drive, temperature, mood and activity. If there’s not enough light, these functions are likely to slow down and gradually stop.
One of the functions of light is to synchronise the Circadian Rhythm which regulates our body’s internal clock.
SAD sufferers may require higher light intensity to regulate their body clock. In the winter when light levels are lower, they produce too much melatonin, the hormone which helps us to sleep, and less of the feel-good hormone, serotonin.
Low Serotonin Levels
People experiencing depression have been found to have lower levels of serotonin, particularly in winter. The brain’s system for releasing and absorbing serotonin is important in regulating mood.
High Melatonin Levels
When it’s dark the pineal gland in the brain produces the hormone melatonin which makes us sleep. When it becomes light again, melatonin production stops and we wake up. (This is also what happens to animals when they hibernate). It seems that people with SAD produce higher levels of melatonin in winter than other people.
How you can manage SAD
- Exercise, good for all forms of depression, boosts the production of serotonin and endorphins.
- Try to get at least thirty minutes to an hour of being outside in natural light each day.
- Eat foods rich in Vitamin D and Omega 3 fats eg oily fish, seeds, nuts.
- Eat small, frequent, well-balanced meals throughout the day with plenty of fruit and fresh vegetables.
- Identify the things which cause you stress. Strive to eliminate stress wherever possible.
- Use light therapy. Full spectrum lights can be purchased.
- Seek out a psychotherapist. Psychotherapy is an effective and practical treatment.
Counselling and Psychotherapy
Counselling and psychotherapy help you to understand the patterns of negative thinking, low mood and the other feelings and behaviours which contribute to SAD.
Talking these things through, identifying the underlying causes, becoming aware of what is happening, allows you to make changes. You can reduce symptoms and feel in control again.
Light Therapy or Phototherapy
Seasonal Affective Disorder is effectively treated by daily exposure to bright artificial light. Spending 30-60 minutes per day in UV-free lighting to the strength of 3,000 lux,(compared with 200-500 lux produced by domestic or office lighting) is thought to correct the hormone imbalance that causes SAD. Most people respond to light therapy within 2 to 4 days of starting treatment.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that SAD should be treated in the same way as other types of depression. This includes talking therapy such as counselling or psychotherapy, light therapy or medication.