Written by Dr Martin Saweirs for Doctify

No, that’s not a typo: being sad is a symptom of SAD. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression which, as the name suggests, presents at a certain time each year. It is commonly known as ‘winter depression’. Research shows up to 8 percent of the UK population are affected, with women more likely to experience it than men.

SAD is distinctly different to the winter blues, which most people experience at some point. Those who are diagnosed with SAD experience the hallmarks of depression:

  • inability to function professionally and personally
  • loss of energy
  • feelings of hopelessness

In actual fact, research conducted in the US by the the National Alliance of Mental Illness suggests that 10% of all SAD sufferers actually suffer more in summer.

Why is our mood influenced by something as simple as the changing of the seasons?

The exact cause of SAD is unknown, but surprisingly, it isn’t thought to be due to the cold. Studies have shown it is more triggered by the shortened days during winter. This reduces our exposure to sunlight, leading to a disturbance of the circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle). People suffering from SAD are believed to have more variation in sensitivity to light between seasons, and this manifests with the depressive symptoms. Susceptibility to SAD is thought to be due to genetic factors rather than behaviour or lifestyle. However, there may be elements of both, and help is available regardless.

How do you treat SAD?

If you believe you are suffering from SAD, there are multiple ways to help you overcome your symptoms. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence say that SAD should be managed in the same way as other types of depression. Many of these measures do not involve taking medications such as antidepressants, just simple lifestyle changes. One change is to get as much natural light as possible throughout the day, and especially upon wakening. Light reduces the secretion of melatonin, the sleep hormone, and may help counter the fatigue and lethargy SAD sufferers experience.

Light therapy is another popular option. Although light therapy has mixed results in studies, it can be really useful, as General Practitioner Dr Martin Saweirs told us. “Many of my patients have had quite impressive improvements from using SAD therapy lamps on a daily basis, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them.”

What about antidepressants?

As with other types of depression, antidepressants can be extremely effective. So can Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It focuses on not simply treating the symptoms of depression, but the innate thoughts and behaviours that are contributing to the problem. One study in the American Journal of Psychiatry showed CBT has better outcomes for SAD sufferers than simple light therapy over a prolonged period.

Depression triggered by changes in the weather is more common than many people think. If you feel lonely, depressed, and lacking energy, you may be suffering from SAD. Don’t suffer in silence when specialist advice is readily available.

 


 

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