Seasonal Affective Disorder

What it is and how you can beat it.

A background:

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, or the Winter Blues, is officially recognised by Doctors and Psychiatrists as a medical condition that is thought to affect 2 million people in the UK.

SAD is a type of depression with a seasonal pattern, occurring most commonly in the winter months.

About one in 100 people in the UK get SAD, most commonly between the ages of 18 and 30, although it can develop at any age. More women are affected than men.

Our 21st Century lifestyles and how they impact:

Historically we only ever worked outdoors; two hundred years ago 75% of the population worked outdoors and now less than 10% of the population work in natural outdoor light. Whilst this is fine in the summer months when there are longer daylight hours, in the winter months, people tend to go to work in the dark and go home in the dark, not getting enough daylight.

Our modern way of living has dramatically altered nature’s cues. In the UK and Ireland we are more susceptible to SAD as we are situated in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere. As a result, we experience large changes in light levels between the summer and winter. We also experience periods of dark, gloomy weather which can reduce the amount of light we receive and therefore have a profound effect on our body clocks.

A combination of a change in seasonal light, our hectic lifestyles and the periods of darker days and poorer weather, can result in dramatic effects on our circadian rhythms. When these rhythms which regulate mood, sleep, wake, appetite, digestion and energy as part of our daily internal cycle fall out of time, it results in an unregulated body clock. As a direct consequence of these environmental and lifestyle factors more people than ever before are suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Symptoms of SAD:

Many people with SAD have changes in their sleep patterns, energy levels and mood in the autumn and winter. Although many people can feel “low” during long periods of grey days in the winter, this unhappiness can develop into SAD.

While mild forms of SAD are commonly referred to as “winter blues”, there are those who suffer so severely they are unable to function during winter without treatment.

SAD symptoms often get worse in the autumn and winter when the days are shorter, and clear up in spring and summer. The symptoms of SAD which are similar to those that develop in other types of depression vary from person to person but commonly include:

  • A low mood for most of the day
  • Lethargy
  • Needing more sleep and sleeping more than usual
  • Eating more than usual, especially craving carbohydrates, leading to weight gain
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of interest in sex (libido)
  • Mood swings and excessive energy in spring/summer- but this is less common.

Causes of SAD:

One theory behind the cause of SAD is that light stimulates a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which controls mood, appetite and sleep. In people with SAD, lack of light and a problem with certain brain chemicals and hormones prevents the hypothalamus from working properly.

  • A chemical called serotonin has a role in “lifting” the mood. It’s thought that people with SAD may have abnormally low levels of chemicals such as serotonin in winter.
  • A hormone called melatonin slows down the body clock, and affects sleeping and mood patterns. People with SAD may respond to a decrease in light by secreting more melatonin than people without SAD. However, medicines designed to suppress the secretion of melatonin don’t stop the symptoms of SAD, so this isn’t the only factor.

If you have a close relative with SAD, you may be more likely to develop it.

Treatment of SAD

Your GP is a good first point of contact, but there are a number of steps you can take to reduce the effects of SAD.  Wherever possible, try:

  • To find a time each day to get outside
  • Sit near windows when you are inside
  • Take regular, moderate exercise
  • Eat a well balanced diet
  • Decorate your home in light colours
  • Leave any major projects until summer and plan ahead for winter
  • Not put yourself under stress and learn relaxation techniques

Light Therapy

Research has shown that exposure to bright, artificial light can improve symptoms in about eight in 10 people with SAD. The aim is to provide bright summer light to stimulate a change in the levels of chemicals and hormones which affect the mood.

Bright light is delivered by devices including:

  • A specially made light box-these range in size
  • Light caps or visors that are worn on the head like a baseball hat
  • Dawn simulators-these are in the form of a bedside light, connected to an alarm clock that mimics a sunrise and wakes the user gradually

The light is at least 10 times stronger than that from normal light bulbs. It’s very similar to natural daylight and it won’t harm your eyes, unlike strong ultraviolet (UV) light. Starting light therapy treatment is as easy as flicking a switch and you should start to feel a benefit within 7-10 days of using a medically certified SAD light. They’re simple and easy to use, while doing activities such as eating, watching TV, and reading or working at a computer; just as long as you keep your body faced towards the light, so that it’s always in your field of vision.

A project in Cornwall is aiming to bring specialized lamps to sufferers of the disorder.

A healthy diet and specific foods that can help seasonal affective disorder

It’s particularly important to maintain a healthy, balanced diet if you have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), as the food you eat can have a big effect on your mood. Some types of food are thought to be particularly beneficial in reducing symptoms of depression.

  • A substance present in some foods called tryptophan is used by your body to produce the chemical serotonin. This helps lift mood. Sources of tryptophan include lean meat (especially poultry), and eggs.
  • Foods high in complex carbohydrates can help to increase the absorption of tryptophan into your brain. Sources of complex carbohydrates include brown rice and pasta, wholegrain bread, potatoes and broccoli. It’s common to want to eat more carbohydrates than usual if you have SAD, so remember to balance this with plenty of fruit and vegetables.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids can also help to reduce symptoms of depression. The best source of omega-3 is oily fish, such as fresh tuna, salmon and mackerel.
  • There is some evidence that folic acid may also help to improve mood. Good sources of folic acid may include leafy green vegetables, some fruit, and bread and cereals fortified with folic acid.

Now you’re armed and ready to fight back against the winter blues, which we are all able to protect ourselves from. No longer will they plague a time of year which should be all about festivities and celebrations.