Source: Adapted from Family Medical Adviser, Reader’s Digest
What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal affective disorder, commonly known as SAD, is a type of depression that affects people in the winter months. Most of us feel energetic and cheerful when the sun is shining and subdued and less active in the winter months. But seasonal affective disorder is more severe than this. Some people are unable to hold down a job in winter because of lethargy, tiredness and poor concentration; relationships often break down because the sufferer becomes irritable and unloving. Some people cannot function at all in winter without treatment.
Who is at risk for seasonal affective disorder?
Between October and April, a growing number of people have symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, and a further 20 per cent have a milder version known popularly as the ‘winter blues’. It can begin at any age, but is most common between the ages of 18 and 30. Symptoms disappear in spring, either suddenly (with a bout of hyperactivity) or gradually.
Seasonal affective disorder is caused by lack of light. In winter, there are fewer hours of daylight and the light is much less intense. This can mean that insufficient light gets to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which controls the important bodily functions of sleep, appetite, temperature, sex drive, mood and activity. For people with SAD these functions slow down and become reduced.
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder
People with seasonal affective disorder often have a low immune system in the winter and get regular colds, infections and other illnesses. To be diagnosed with the disorder you must have had three years of winter symptoms, including some of the following:
- Sleepiness during the day or oversleeping;
- Lack of energy for normal routine;
- Overeating and putting on weight;
- Feeling low; sometimes helplessness and despair;
- Unwillingness to see people or to socialize;
- Anxiety, tension and irritability;
- Lack of interest in sex or physical contact.
Treatment for seasonal affective disorder
Light therapy is one successful option. Bright light treatment helps 85 per cent of people diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder. It means spending up to four hours a day exposed to very bright light, or ‘full-spectrum’ light ‘ which mimics natural sunlight and is ten times the intensity of domestic lighting. Light boxes that produce this light can be bought commercially.
Medications for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Another option is antidepressant drugs and supplements. Newer antidepressants, such as Lustral and Prozac, can help people with severe seasonal affective disorder, and can be combined with light treatment.
Alternative Therapies for Seasonal Affective Disorder
The medicinal herb St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is now a popular treatment for depression, and may also help people with seasonal affective disorder. It should not be taken with conventional antidepressants.
Living with Seasonal Affective Disorder
If you’re living with SAD, here are a few quick tips to help you take control:
- Make the most of any available daylight: go for a walk at midday in winter; decorate your home in light colours.
- Simplify your life in winter; leave big upheavals until the summer.
- Take a holiday in January or February.