In recent years there have been claims that seasonal affective disorder (SAD) could be a myth – one 2016 study in particular provoked a slew of headlines to that effect. So you can be forgiven for thinking there might be some debate around whether SAD is a clinical condition. But when we double-checked with Dr Arun Thiyagarajan, UK medical director for health clinics at Bupa UK, his reply was clear.
“SAD was first coined as a medical condition back in 1984,” says Thiyagarajan. “Research into the condition is still ongoing, but in the UK the condition is recognised clinically as a form of depression, and treatments are available to combat it.”
So SAD is real, and it’s not something that you should take lightly if you think you are suffering from it, in the same way you wouldn’t dismiss any form of depression or mental illness. We asked Thiyagaraja for more information about what SAD is, what can cause it and how it can be treated.
What is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that tends to hit at about the same time each year – usually around autumn or winter, but it can happen in the summer months, too.
There are many forms of depression and SAD is just one of them, though the unique thing about it is it only affects some people at certain times of the year. People who suffer with it may feel like themselves during other seasons but find depressive symptoms develop at the same time each year.
SAD’s symptoms include low mood and a lack of interest in things you usually enjoy. You might feel like you can’t get up in the morning because you don’t have any energy, but then you can’t drift off to sleep when you go to bed. SAD can cause changes to your appetite, leaving you craving stodgy carbohydrates and sugary snacks. Difficulty socialising is another symptom – you might feel like you just want to stay in and shut out the world.
What causes SAD?
Although research is still ongoing, the general consensus is that there are a number of external factors that can affect mood, and for some people, this can lead to SAD.
Some of the external factors thought to have a bearing on the development of the condition include light, disruption to your body clock, levels of melatonin [a hormone which affects sleep patterns], the weather and temperature. Light triggers your brain to regulate key elements affecting your mood and wellbeing, including sleep, appetite, sex drive, melatonin levels and temperature. It appears that some people may need specific amounts of light to regulate these factors sufficiently, meaning they’re more vulnerable to developing SAD.
Can you make lifestyle changes to treat SAD?
As SAD research is still in the early stages, no definitive cure has been established yet. However, you can help to manage your symptoms by speaking to your GP and making some simple lifestyle changes.
If your SAD affects you during the winter months, although it might be difficult, it can be really useful to go outside and get some sun on your skin. This will help you to get a vitamin D hit, even if the sun’s behind clouds, and boost your mood. Make sure you let sunlight into your home and working environment during the day and sit close to windows when you can.
Exercise is a great way to help your mood with endorphins, mood-boosting hormones that can help to fight depressive feelings. You could make a walk or run with a friend a regular scheduled activity – this way you get both the benefit of exercising and socialising, two key elements of good wellbeing.
Another way you can help yourself is to make sure your body’s getting all the nutrients it needs to keep you fit and healthy. It can be useful to batch-cook and freeze healthy meals so you can pick these out of the freezer when you’re feeling low on energy – and avoid bingeing on the carbohydrates and sugars you’re craving.
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When should you go and see a doctor about SAD?
If you find that your low mood recurs at the same time each year, you should book an appointment with your GP. They may be able to suggest treatments that can help alleviate SAD’s symptoms, like antidepressants or cognitive behavioural therapy.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.