With the days shortening and the weather growing chilly, winter is once again just around the corner. Many enjoy this festive and cosy time of year but for others it can herald the onset of a recurrent and difficult mood disorder; Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
What is SAD?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a common condition of varying severity. It is more common in younger people and women and approximately 7% of people in Ireland may suffer from its’ symptoms at some stage. It is most frequent the further away from the equator you travel and in the northern hemisphere. Symptoms usually emerge in the months between September and March.
It is postulated that during the darker months of the year the levels of brain chemicals which can affect our mood, such as melatonin and serotonin, may be changed by the amount of light falling on the back of the eye which stimulates nerves in the brain. Altered or low levels of these chemical messengers may lead to symptoms of low mood.
Unlike depression, where loss of appetite, weight loss and early morning wakening are typical, people suffering from SAD can exhibit increased appetite especially for starchy foods, weight gain and difficulty getting up in mornings. This will often be the first sign of a problem, commencing in late autumn.
The more classic symptoms of depression – low mood and loss of interest in things previously enjoyed then usually occur. Social withdrawal may develop at the peak of symptoms typically in December, January or February. Symptoms can improve rapidly, over a couple of weeks, with the onset of Spring and longer daylight hours.
Is there treatment available for SAD?
Light box treatment works for many. This involves sitting in front of a special light box, with brighter than normal bulbs, for up to 1-3 hours/day. This can be done while eating or working. A light box must be a reputable brand and does not emit UV light. UV light is the component of sunlight that causes sun burn/ skin cancer. Sunbeds should NEVER be used as a treatment for SAD.
Light therapy works within weeks for many but needs to be kept up then to ensure sustained improvement until the change of seasons
As with other forms of depression talking therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been shown to improve symptoms in SAD.
Thankfully these are not required as a first line therapy for most people suffering from SAD. However, at the extreme end of symptoms, SAD can be treated successfully with antidepressants under the guidance of a doctor. For some Seasonal Affective Disorder can co-exist with other mental health disorders. As a first step if you are concerned about your own or a loved one’s mental health please consult your medical professional for advice.
Thankfully SAD although relatively common it is a very treatable condition. And for all the rest of us, for whom short days and bad weather can dampen the spirits, if even temporarily, remember that good company, exercise and a balanced diet goes a long way towards banishing those winter blues. A warm, waterproof jacket and an enthusiastic friend may be all you need to make the most of the little daylight there is once the clocks change – keep well this winter.