Feeling SAD? Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

close up of brown autumn leaf to illustrate feeling SAD if you have seasonal affective disorder

It’s that time of year again.  The days are shorter, there’s a chill in the air and I have a cold.  Apart from welcoming Autumn with coughs and sneezes, I’ve also begun light treatment to try and stave off the affects of Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.

What is SAD?

SAD is a form of depression that is brought on by the lack of daylight in winter. SAD symptoms start between September and November and usually disappear with the arrival of spring and the longer daylight hours.

Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • sleeping more
  • eating more
  • weight gain
  • extreme tiredness
  • feelings of misery and despair
  • lack of concentration and memory impairment
  • loss of interest and enjoyment.

My experience of SAD began with autumnal cravings for chocolate and hot chips followed by an inability to wake up in the morning. After many years of dreading the winter and resigning myself to feeling extremely depressed,  I finally realised that I was suffering the effects of SAD.  Until then I thought it was quite normal to spend most of February lying on the sofa and being too depressed to leave the house.

It turns out I’m not alone.  According to the SAD.org.uk website:

Seasonal Affective Disorder… is thought to affect 2 million people in the UK and Ireland and over 12 Million people across Northern Europe.

What Causes SAD?

The exact cause of SAD is unknown but the BUPA information on Seasonal Affective Disorder puts forward the theory that light stimulates a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which controls mood, appetite and sleep. In people with SAD, lack of light, low levels of serotonin (which plays a role in mood, appetite and sleep) and high levels of the hormone melatonin (which slows down the body clock) may prevent the hypothalamus from working properly.

Another theory is that SAD may be a symptom of Vitamin D deficiency. Sunshine is one of the best natural sources of Vitamin D and during the winter months our Vitamin D reserves may become depleted. Low levels of Vitamin D have been found to exacerbate levels of depression.

I was also interested to discover that people who have lived near the tropics for part of their lives and then emigrated to the UK seem to be more vulnerable to SAD symptoms. I grew up in Durban, South Africa, which is sub-tropical and temperatures can still reach a balmy 28 degrees centigrade in the middle of winter! Nothing could have prepared me for the dull gloom and pervasive damp of the English winter so it’s hardly surprising that I suffer from SAD.

Light Therapy as Treatment for SAD

The Philips goLITE BLU Energy Light

The Philips goLITE BLU Energy Light

So, can anything be done to combat the symptoms of SAD?  The answer is a resounding ‘Yes’! A few years ago, I asked my partner for a ‘SAD lamp’ for Christmas and since then I’ve been using a Philips goLITE BLU energy light between Autumn and the beginning of Spring.

Using a SAD lamp has completely transformed my experience of winter and I’ve not suffered my usual debilitating winter depression.  Yes, I still get the winter blues if there are too many cold, wet, grey days, but then so do most people.  But those feelings of life-sucking misery and wanting to hibernate until it’s all over are no longer prevalent.

The key to my successful light therapy or phototherapy is to use the energy lamp every day for 15 – 30 minutes first thing in the morning, starting in Autumn.  I place the lamp on my desk, beside my laptop, and then get on with my emails or work. My particular SAD lamp emits blue light therapy but there are other energy lamps on the market that use white light therapy.

I have also found that going for a walk in winter around mid-day is good as the daylight is usually strong then.  I don’t wear sunglasses if it’s bright in order to absorb as much sunlight as possible through my eyes.

How does Phototherapy work?

Lack of light causes an increase in the production of the hormone Melatonin (responsible for making us sleepy at night), and a reduction in the neuro-transmitter Serotonin, low levels of which have been linked with depression.

One theory is that bright light from light therapy on the retina sends nerve signals to parts of the brain, and reverses this process. Bright light also has an energising effect.

SAD Lamps and Light Boxes

If you are thinking of investing in a SAD lamp I recommend looking at the SAD.org.uk website for their list of recommended S.A.D. manufacturers. Because light therapy lamps are quite expensive it is important that you are purchasing a devise that has been medically proven to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder. Their sister site www.sad.co.uk has a wide range of SAD lamps and Light Therapy products to choose from but feel free to shop around.

Further reading:

There is an excellent in-depth article on Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder on the Mind website.

Blog post: Vitamin D Could Help with Depression

If you suffer from SAD and have found a treatment that works for you, please let me know by leaving a comment below.

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2 Responses to Feeling SAD? Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

  1. Thedoc Toriscrazy October 23, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    Thanks for the timely article Angie.
    For those of us with a depressive disorder other than SAD, it is worth evaluating whether there is a seasonal component to our depression.
    I can get depressed at any time of the year, so I don’t meet the criteria for SAD. But it is very clear to me after living with depression for about a quarter of a century, that the seasonal component to my depression is very strong.
    So I too use phototherapy, starting each year at the beginning of autumn. With the light therapy, I no longer need to increase the dose of my antidepressant in the fall, which means that I don’t experience the increased side effects that go with the higher doses.
    Speaking of side effects, there are some side effects of phototherapy; headache, nausea and irritability being the most common. If you experience any of these, you should reduce the duration of the light exposure by half, then increase gradually after the symptoms resolve.
    And it is worth mentioning that any treatment for depression, including light therapy, can trigger mania or hypomania. If you begin feeling excessively jumpy, irritable, or high, find you need little sleep, begin acting impulsively or have any other symptom of mania or hypomania, stop using the light and contact a mental health professional or your primary healthcare provider.

    • Angie Macdonald October 23, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

      Thanks for this, doc – sound advice. Interesting that phototherapy means that you no longer need to increase the dose of your antidepressant in the fall – glad it works.

      I should also mention that it’s best to use the SAD lamp in the morning, and earlier rather than later in the day, as if you use it in the evening, it could affect your body clock and keep you awake at night.

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