Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, is a type of depression that affects thousands of people each winter. It strikes between the months of September and April, with most sufferers feeling the worst effects in December, January and February as a result of the lack of sunlight and shorter days.
For many people, SAD is a serious condition that affects their day-to-day lives and requires medical treatment. For many others, seasonal affective disorder is less serious but still causes many problems.
SAD can be treated in various ways. Simple changes in environment to bring more colour and light into the world, yellow sunglasses and light boxes are just some of the ways sufferers can get relief from their symptoms.
What causes SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder is caused by changes in light level and quality and associated altered levels of chemicals in the brain.
Not getting enough light during the dark winter months is one of the biggest triggers of SAD. It is said that each individual has a “light requirement” and if this is not reached, they may become ill.
The chemicals involved in SAD are primarily serotonin and melatonin, with dopamine also thought to have some effect. An abnormal balance of these hormones in the brain is often indicated in cases of seasonal affective disorder.
Serotonin is the hormone that makes us feel calm, balanced and in control, so low levels lead to depression and concentration. People without enough serotonin are more likely to have SAD and may find they crave sweet and starchy foods to help boost their levels.
Melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep, is also a factor in people with SAD. Without enough serotonin, melatonin can take over and cause tiredness. Melatonin is only produced during the hours of darkness, so with shorter days in winter, more of the hormone is present.
Abnormalities in dopamine levels have also been linked to seasonal affective disorder. Its production is stimulated by light, so in winter lower production is often found. Dopamine acts on mood, sleep and attention, and without it people can become tired, irritable and suffer from a lack of concentration.
Symptoms of SAD
People with seasonal affective disorder can experience a range of symptoms over the winter months, which together can cause serious problems with day-to-day life.
Patients can get depressed and experience a low mood, negative thoughts and feelings, guilt, a lack of self-esteem, apathy and despair.
Sleep problems are common in those with SAD. They often feel the need to sleep more, oversleep or have disturbed sleep and find it difficult to stay awake during the day. This is also often combined with a general lethargy and fatigue and, together, this makes it very hard to carry out normal everyday routines.
Weight gain is often seen as a result of a craving for carbohydrates and sugars as the body attempts to boost serotonin levels. An almost constant craving can be experienced and drops in blood sugar after giving in to these urges can exacerbate other symptoms.
Concentration and memory are often poor and a SAD sufferer may become irritable and less social. Increased levels of anxiety may be felt and stressful situations can become harder to deal with. Sex drive and interest in physical contact can fall.
Most sufferers also have a weakened immune system during winter and are more susceptible to infections, meaning even the common cold can become a problem and may lead to more serious conditions.
With the arrival of spring, SAD suffers will get relief from their symptoms. This can be almost instant, such as a sharp change in mood, or happen over time as the seasons change. In some cases, the body swings too far the other way and over activity can be experienced.
How to combat SAD
People with seasonal affective disorder can take many steps to combat the symptoms and help them cope better over winter.
Yellow glasses are a good way to trick the eyes into believing they are getting more natural light and can be of huge benefit for those with SAD. These blue blocking glasses help to alter the circadian rhythm – the human body clock that tells us when to sleep and eat. The yellow lenses block the blue light rays, which are involved in the production of melatonin, and therefore alter the need for sleep, which is prevalent in people with SAD.
Sufferers will also benefit from the use of a light box. These use special daylight bulbs to simulate natural light, making up for the lack of sun over winter months. By sitting in front of a light box for as little as 30 minutes a day, people with seasonal affective disorder can “top up” their light quota and get relief from symptoms. Some light boxes can also act as sunrise alarm clocks – gradually coming on in the morning to give the effect of a normal sunrise, even when it is dark and cloudy. This gives the body clock a kick-start and ensures a regular morning routine is maintained.
Even simple changes to the environment can benefit people with SAD. Small steps such as using bright colours in interior decoration and clothing and having fresh, colourful flowers around the home can give a positive emotional effect and lift mood.