Royal South Hants Minor Injuries Unit
Royal South Hants Minor Injuries Unit

SAD sufferers find light relief

December 6 2016

As winter approaches with its longer nights, the lack of sunlight will have a serious effect on some people’s mental wellbeing.

For them, winter can mean a battle with Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD syndrome as it is often called), a kind of depression which comes and goes according to the seasons.

Sometimes labelled winter depression, the symptoms often begin to appear in autumn and worsen as the days grow shorter, making December, January and February the worst months for people with the disorder.

Usually, the condition improves and then disappears in the spring and summer months, often to return again in the autumn. The symptoms of SAD include:

  • Feeling low all the time
  • Taking no pleasure or interest in usual everyday activities
  • Being irritable
  • Having feelings of  guilt, worthlessness and despair
  • Feeling lethargic (having no  energy) and drowsy during the day
  • Sleeping more than normal and struggling to get up in the morning
  • Craving carbohydrates (e.g. potatoes, rice and pasta) and putting on weight
  • Having low self esteem
  • Being less sociable
  • Feeling tearful
  • Feeling anxious or stressed
  • Having a lower sex drive

In some cases these symptoms can be severe and have a serious impact on the daily lives of people with the condition. The exact causes of SAD are not fully understood but it’s widely linked to the lack of sunlight in winter. The theory is that a lack of sunlight may lead to a part of the brain, the hypothalamus, not working properly.

This leads to the body producing too much melatonin, the hormone which makes people feel sleepy. It can also reduce the amount of serotonin, the hormone which can affect moods, sleep and appetite. This leads to people feeling depressed.

The lack of sunlight is also felt to disrupt the body’s internal clock known as the circadian rhythm, as the body uses sunlight as a prompt to carry out certain functions such as waking up. As cases of SAD appear to run in some families, it’s felt that the disorder could also have a genetic link. There are a number of treatments available which include:

  • Adapting your lifestyle by making sure that you get as much sunlight as possible, exercise regularly and manage stress levels.

  • Using a light box to mimic sunlight. A range of devices are now available including dawn simulating alarm clocks which gradually light the room.

  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet.

  • Sitting close to a window when indoors.

  • Making work and home environments as bright and airy as possible.

  • Utilising talking therapies such as those used to treat other forms of depression, including cognitive behavioural therapy and counselling

  • Medication such as antidepressants.

Anyone who feels they may have SAD and is struggling to cope should visit their GP, who will be able to assess the symptoms and advise on the best course of treatment.