Most of us have seasons that we don’t particularly look forward to, with our mood sometimes going from energetic in the summer to sleepy in the winter. This is quite natural – but if the change in seasons has a bigger effect on your mood that leads to feelings of depression, you could be suffering from SAD, a mental health disorder.
What is SAD?
The NHS describes SAD as a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern, it is also known as ‘winter depression’ as symptoms are usually more apparent throughout winter. It is recognised as a mental health disorder where the change in seasons causes a persistent low mood and lack of energy. The NHS notes that for some people these symptoms can be severe and have a significant impact on day-to-day life.
SAD Causes and Symptoms
The mental health charity, Mind, lists 4 theories about what causes SAD and why people experience a different level of severity in symptoms:
- The effects of light – your sleep, appetite, temperature, sex drive, mood and activity are controlled by messages that are passed to parts of the brain when light hits the back of your eye. Those functions are likely to slow down and stop if there isn’t enough light. Some people need more light than others and are therefore more likely to develop SAD in low levels of light.
- Disrupted body clock – Mayo Clinic says that the reduced level of sunlight during autumn and winter may disrupt your body’s internal clock, as your brain sets your body clock by the hours of daylight. This could mean your body clock slows down, leading to tiredness and depression.
- Low serotonin levels – serotonin is described by the NHS as a hormone that affects your mood, sleep and appetite. Insufficient sunlight may lead to reduced serotonin levels which is linked to feelings of depression.
- High melatonin levels – the hormone melatonin makes you feel sleepy. According to the NHS, people with SAD may produce melatonin at higher levels than normal.
SAD Treatment and Support
- Talking therapy – including counselling, psychotherapy or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be very helpful for people with SAD and can help sufferers recognise and deal with other factors that may be contributing to their symptoms.
- Light therapy – where a special light is used to simulate exposure to sunlight, to help reduce the production of melatonin and increase levels of serotonin. However, NICE is not clear on its effectiveness. There are different light therapy treatments for individual lifestyles and many different SAD lights available from various brands with different functions. Factors that affect which SAD light is right for you according to SAD.org.uk: the amount of free time you have during the average day for a light therapy treatment, how much money you have available to spend and the appropriate size for the space you have available in terms of portability.
- Lifestyle measures – the NHS recommends trying to get as much natural sunlight as possible by: taking a walk at lunch time, making your home and work environments as light and airy as possible, sit near windows when you’re indoors, exercising regularly particularly outdoors in daylight, eating a healthy, balanced diet and if possible take steps to avoid and manage stress.
- Antidepressants – these drugs can be used to treat severe cases of SAD. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are some of the drugs offered for SAD. They work by increasing the activity of particular brain chemicals such as serotonin which is thought to have a good influence on mood, emotion and sleep. Antidepressants are not recommended for mild or moderate cases; SSRIs can be combined with light therapy and taken seasonally.
The NHS says you should be aware of these 3 things if prescribed antidepressants: it can take 4-6 weeks for the medication to take effect, some may have side effects and may interact with other medication you’re taking, and you should take it as prescribed and continue taking it as advised by your doctor.
Feeling down in the winter or certain seasons is not always associated with SAD, but If you’re worried about your wellbeing, it is important to contact your GP and get a medical diagnosis and the help and support you need.
Disclaimer: The content of this website is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute nutritional advice, nor does it substitute the medical advice from a healthcare professional.