Prevention and treatment for SAD (seasonal affective disorder)

As we settle into the autumn months, you might feel yourself asking ‘ why do I feel down?’ or ‘why have do I have low energy?’

Although low mood or energy levels may result from a number of different reasons; during the winter months their incidence increases due to the dreaded ‘winter blues’ or seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

What is SAD?

It’s a debilitating weather and season related disorder, which may prevent the sufferers from functioning to their full potential part of the year. It is a form of depressive disorders which starts in the beginning of autumn and ending in early spring.

It’s more common in young females living further from the equator. In the UK it is believed that up to 20% of people may experience the winter blues.

Why does it happens?

Seasonal light changes can lead to imbalance in the body’s internal clock the circadian rhythm, leading to lower serotonin and higher melatonin levels in the body. Serotonin is a chemical which controls our mood and melatonin is responsible for sleep regulation.

Reduced sun exposure can further reduce vitamin D production, which may result in a vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency. This is thought to be associated with lower serotonin levels and depression.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

Reduced light hours in the autumn/winter period may trigger symptoms which vary on an individual basis.

Low mood, emotional unrest with episodes of crying, irritability, lethargy, poor concentration, increased sleep, lower activity and craving of carbohydrate rich foods. Low activity and higher food intake leading to weight gain.

Less frequently, loss of appetite, agitation and anxiety.

What is the prevention or treatments for SAD ?

  1. Light box therapy - shown to be an effective treatment for SAD. Research suggests that 30 minutes to 2 hours two to four days a week improves mood and other symptoms.

  2. Cognitive behaviour therapy - please speak to your GP for referral or self refer using British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy’s website.

  3. Aerobic exercise - preferably in the morning to improve oxygen supply to the brain. Typically 3 times a week for 30 mins.

  4. Vitamin D - increase intake of vitamin D rich food, typically oily fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel or anchovies as well as supplementing starting from October for us in the UK.

  5. Blood Sugar Balance - include some protein and unsaturated fats with every meal to stabilise blood sugar and control cravings.

If you are worried about seasonal mood changes or have symptoms which are preventing you from daily function, please speak to your doctor as soon as possible.