Seasonal affective disorder is a significant health condition, but it does not always receive the attention it deserves. It can have an important impact on health and wellbeing. You or someone you know may be affected.
Also known as seasonal depression, it is a term for the severe changes in mood some people experience during winter. Suffers have a general sense of sadness, difficulty sleeping and other symptoms associated with depression.
Causes of S.A.D.
Whilst the causes of seasonal affective disorder are not fully understood, there is a link between the condition and the shorter days of winter and reduced exposure to light.
Brain function and sunlight are linked. Lack of sunlight can reduce brain levels of the hormones serotonin and melatonin, and disturb the circadian rhythm, more commonly known as the internal clock.
Melatonin levels go up and down through a 24 hours cycle. It has a role in regulating patterns of sleep and in turn in the regulation of mood. People with S.A.D. have abnormal levels melatonin and typically abnormal patterns of sleep.
Typically the symptoms of S.A.D. tend to disappear as the days get longer, but can come back in the winter. It is this seasonal pattern that makes S.A.D different from other mood disorders.
Who gets it?
Anyone can suffer from S.A.D. However, certain groups are more vulnerable than others. According to the American Psychological Association, women, people from 18-30 years of age and those with a history of depression are more likely to suffer from this condition. It is four times more common in women than in men. The condition can run in families.
Because S.A.D. is linked to lack of exposure to sunlight and other environmental factors, people who live further from the equator (in darker and colder parts of the world, and even in the UK) are more vulnerable to it than those who live in sunnier parts of the world. In Ireland, for example, studies have suggested that up to 20% of the population is at risk.
Treatment and prevention
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression. There are some simple things people can do to keep mood stable in the gloomier months. For example:
- Exercise regularly
- Keep to a healthy diet
- Avoid alcohol and illegal drugs
- Maintain a solid social network
- Try to get enough rest
Seasonal affective disorder can be treated with light therapy and counselling. Cognitive behavioural therapy and interpersonal therapy, in particular, helps people to identify and manage symptoms and prevent further depressive episodes.
In more severe cases of S.A.D, antidepressants such as sertraline or paroxetine are often prescribed. These drugs can take several weeks to take effect. It is usual to keep taking treatment for at least a few months, even after symptoms have improved. Always follow your doctor’s instructions.
S.A.D. and other forms of depression are serious health conditions. If you or someone you know is experiencing lack of motivation, alterations in eating and sleeping patterns, social withdrawal or lack of interest in activities, it is important to speak to your GP as soon as possible.