Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a depressive illness that changes with the seasons. It affects 2 million people in the UK, according to SAD.org.uk, while up to 20 per cent of the population say they often experience the "winter blues".
SAD typically begins in autumn and the symptoms become progressively worse during December, January and February. While most of us want to hibernate and eat comfort foods when the weather turns cold and gloomy, some people suffer with a persistent low mood.
People with SAD experience similar symptoms to those with other types of depression, including lethargy and needing more sleep, along with tearfulness, feeling hopeless, and a lack of interest in day-to-day activities. Other signs include anxiety, irritability, difficulty concentrating, loss of libido and a desire to comfort eat.
The treatments for patients with SAD vary depending on the severity of your symptoms. Common treatments include:
1. Talking therapy
Many people benefit from talking therapies, such as counselling, psychotherapy, or cognitive behavioural therapy, which aims to change the way you think and ultimately behave. One study found that CBT was just as effective for the treatment of SAD as light therapy. In fact, people who underwent CBT experienced fewer symptoms a year on, compared to those who received light therapy only.
2. Bright light therapy
The cause of SAD is not fully understood but it's believed to be the result of reduced levels of sunlight. This lack of light may affect the hypothalamus, which disturbs the body's internal body clock and affects the production of melatonin and serotonin.
Many SAD patients find sitting in front of a lightbox for 30 mins to an hour each day beneficial. According to the mental health charity Mind, bright light therapy is effective for around 80 per cent of people, and typically starts to work within three to five days. See our pick of the five best SAD lamps to buy. As well as light boxes, you can also buy visors and dawn simulators. If you're going to try bright light therapy, it's best to start in early winter, rather than waiting until your symptoms are more severe.
Your doctor may suggest that you exercise more, preferably outdoors where you can benefit from the fresh air and sunlight. Exercise also has the benefit of helping to manage stress. A brisk 30-minute walk five days a week can be enough to improve your mood.
4. Vitamin D
The body loses some of its ability to synthesize vitamin D from sunlight as we get older, which means that those over the age of 65 have an increased risk of vitamin D deficiency – particularly in the darker, winter months.
Vitamin D isn't just important for healthy bones and teeth. A lack of the vitamin can cause low mood and depression, as well as muscle/joint pain and tiredness/fatigue. If you feel you have these symptoms, see your GP who may offer you a blood test and treatment.
Aside from getting more light, eating food that contains vitamin D (such as oily fish and eggs) may help or you might want to take a vitamin D tablet.
If your symptoms are severe, or talking therapies and other treatments have not helped, your GP may prescribe antidepressants.