What is SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and how can you treat it?

12.11.2021

Seasonal affective disorder impacts the lives of roughly 3 in 100 people across the UK. Women are even more likely to struggle with seasonal affective disorder, being four times more likely to develop symptoms than men. 

Despite seasonal affective disorder being a relatively common condition across the UK, it’s only started to be discussed in recent years. Many people don’t even realise seasonal affective disorder is what is causing them to struggle more at certain points of the year. 

LycaHealth is here to tell you the tell-tale signs of seasonal affective disorder. Being able to spot the signs makes it easier to get the right help, often through your GP, or offer support to your loved ones. 

What is seasonal affective disorder? 

Seasonal affective disorder is also known by the abbreviation as “SAD” or “winter depression”. It’s called winter depression because it’s more likely to affect people towards winter when there is less sunlight. Symptoms tend to manifest around September and can last through until April with symptoms being at their most difficult during the months with the last sunlight hours. 

It’s far less common but some people are affected by seasonal affective disorder during the summer.

Seasonal affective disorder’s main defining factor is its seasonal pattern. This is different to depression which isn’t necessarily linked to the symptoms though they share many symptoms. At this point, it’s unclear what causes seasonal affective disorder. The most prominent theory is that the lack of sunlight during the winter months may affect the hypothalamus

This can impact:

  • Production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that helps you sleep, people struggling with SAD have higher levels of melatonin leading to lethargy and tiredness. 
  • Production of Serotonin. Serotonin affects your mood, appetite and sleep. Lower serotonin levels are linked to depression. 
  • Circadian Rhythm. This is also known as your ‘body clock’. Your body uses sunlight to time various parts of your routine, including when you wake up. Because of the limited sunlight hours during winter, your circadian rhythm can be impacted. 

There also appears to be some genetic links, as cases of SAD can run in the families. 

What are seasonal affective disorder symptoms?

How you struggle with SAD can vary, but there are a number of common symptoms. Many of these symptoms are similar to symptoms of depression, which is reflected in the name ‘winter depression’. If you already deal with mental health issues, you may find SAD amplifies these problems. 

Some common symptoms of SAD include:

  • Low energy. Especially if this is a consistent problem that isn’t helped by sleep. 
  • Sleep problems. This can include sleeping more or less than you usually do, interrupted sleep patterns or trouble waking up
  • Appetite changes. You may find yourself wanting to eat more, feeling hungrier or losing your appetite. 
  • Becoming less social. This will depend on your usual social levels, but you may find yourself not wanting to see people or avoiding social interactions. 
  • Difficulty concentrating. This could be in your professional life or with hobbies and interests at home. 
  • Feelings of depression. 

Seasonal affective disorder impacts people differently. Don’t be put off seeking help if you don’t have every symptom or experience SAD differently. 

How do you treat seasonal affective disorder?

There are a number of ways to treat seasonal affective disorder and make symptoms more manageable. 

Some people choose to use a SAD lamp, or SAD light, as a form of at-home light therapy. SAD lamps are a bright lamp that is meant to mimic natural sunlight, encouraging your body to produce serotonin. It’s advised to use in the morning, between 15 and 60 minutes. Some claim it can also help with keeping a steady circadian rhythm during the winter months. It is not clear how effective light therapy is at treating seasonal affective disorder according to NICE, but many SAD sufferers report finding it helpful.

It is commonly thought the best way to cope with seasonal affective disorder, is to treat it like any other form of depression. Speaking to your GP is a great first step as they may be able to prescribe you medication or refer you to mental health services such as counselling or CBT.  

Alongside professional support, there are a number of ways you can help improve symptoms of seasonal depression yourself. 

  • Trying to get as much natural sunlight as possible. This could be a quick walk on your lunch break or taking a coffee break outside. Even brief exposure to natural sunlight is better than none. 
  • Prioritise making your workspace and home as light and bright as possible. This can involve making sure curtains are open throughout the day and remembering to turn the lights on before it gets dark. 
  • Regularly exercising. Exercise triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin and can help improve mood. Where possible, it’s best to exercise outdoors to get natural light. 
  • A healthy balanced diet. Overly processed foods can lead to sugar crashes, which will impact your mood negatively. 

LycaHealth is here to help so get in touch with us to find out more about how we can help support you. 

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