Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

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SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) lightboxWhat is SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, known as SAD, is a kind of depressive illness that occurs only during the autumn and winter months.

What are its symptoms?

The symptoms are varied and include:

  • Feeling depressed
  • Changed sleep patterns - usually sufferers will require more sleep than usual and will suffer from lethargy.
  • Eating more than usual, especially sugary snacks.
  • Gaining weight
  • Not wanting to socialise.
  • Being irritable.

What causes SAD?

Its causes are not yet fully understood, although it is thought to be caused by the reduced daylight levels and sunlight available during the Autumn and Winter months. The reduced light levels may trigger reductions in the hormones serotonin (related to mood) and increases in the hormone melatonin (related to mood and sleep). However, these hormone theories have yet to be proven in clinical trials. Evidence gained to date has been somewhat inconclusive. Some doctors believe that there is no difference between SAD and other forms of depression, although there is much anecdotal evidence to contradict this.

How is SAD treated?

First, you will need to confirm that it is definitely SAD that you are suffering from, and there is not some other cause of your depression. However, if you have noticed that year in year out you feel down during Autumn and Winter, then perk up in the Spring, you may indeed be suffering from SAD. However, It would be wise to get your doctor to confirm your diagnosis and rule out any other causes.

Thankfully, there are many forms of treatment that you can administer to yourself without a prescription. Some ideas for self help treatment include:

  • Spending as much time outside as possible when the weather is bright or sunny.
  • Sitting close to a window when indoors.
  • Following a healthy diet.

Other treatments include using a specially designed light box which provides the light that the sun does not (see box pictured above). Clinical trials have shown that light boxes such as these can improve the symptoms of SAD in about 66% of cases. The light delivered is much stronger than that available from a normal light bulb.

Do not be tempted to use a normal sun lamp for this purpose - ultra violet light from a sun lamp can damage your eyes (aswell as your skin) - the purpose designed light boxes give out light that is similar to normal daylight and it should not harm your eyes - nor give you a tan. Unfortunately, you cannot get these light boxes on the NHS, but they are available for private purchase. They are generally used for between half and one and a half hours per day, but again, seek your GPs advice before making a purchase.

The only treatment you are likely to get on the NHS is drugs to treat the depression, which may be necessary, but it makes sense to try these other remedies first to see if they can improve your condition.

For further help and support, visit the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association, who can advise on symptoms and treatment, and provide you with an information pack for a nominal charge, currently £5.