Are you “SAD”?

Many of us start to feel a bit blue as summer fades but some of us actually develop a form of depression as the season changes. Known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), it affects up to half a million people in the UK according to the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA).

It occurs from September to April but is more prevalent in December to February. The first sign of SAD is usually a drop in energy, which turns into lethargy. Other symptoms include oversleeping or a need to sleep more, a compulsive craving for carbohydrate-rich foods, especially sugary snacks and chocolate, lack of confidence, low libido and increased irritability.

Experts are still divided as to what causes SAD. “One thing is clear though,” says Amelia. “It is very real and not a fad as is sometimes presumed”. Lack of light seems to be the main trigger. An imbalance of the chemicals melatonin and serotonin produced in the hypothalamus, the area of the brain that controls mood, appetite and sleep, may also be to blame.

SAD treatment

Doctors may diagnose SAD if you have had severe persistent low mood in winter that lifts in spring for three years in a row. The mainstay of treatment is light therapy, which involves sitting for up to four hours a day in front of a specially designed box that allows light to shine through the eyes. But we are not talking normal indoor light – to be effective the light has to be at least ten times the intensity of the domestic variety. Some people feel better after just one light treatment but some need at least a few days and some several weeks before they see any improvement.

If light therapy does not work antidepressants may provide relief. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is another option. A US study carried out in 2009 found that people who underwent CBT were less likely to have a relapse of SAD one year later than people who used light therapy. Those who used a combination of treatments fared even better. Studies also show that the herbal remedy St John’s Wort may help to bring relief.

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