Winter is known as the gloomiest season due to the weather it brings, but if you find yourself feeling lower than usual, there could be a reason why.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a kind of depression that has its onset during different seasons of the year. Most people tend to be affected during winter but it can occur in summer too. People who suffer from SAD tend experience symptoms of depression more during the winter months.
The cause of SAD is thought to be lack of sunlight during the winter. This has an adverse effect on the hypothalamus, a small part of the brain which is vital in the regulation of many functions and systems. The hypothalamus is involved in hormone release, body temperature regulation and overall internal balance.
During winter, there are increased levels of melatonin in the body which can lead to sleepiness. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone produced by the pineal gland. It’s been discovered that more melatonin is secreted during winter – which might explain why it’s so hard to get up when it’s freezing!
Lack of sunlight can also lead to decreased levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that can affect mood, appetite and sleep. Serotonin plays a major role in depression, low mood, sweet cravings and poor sleep, particularly when its levels are reduced. This can contribute to SAD during winter.
Lower light levels may also disrupt the body’s internal clock – which is known as the circadian rhythm.
One treatment method for seasonal affective disorder is lifestyle measures such as:
- Getting as much natural sunlight as possible
- Regular exercise
- Reducing stress
Another treatment used is light therapy designed to mimic sun exposure. Several studies have shown that treating patients with bright lights can suppress melatonin – thus, reducing the sleepiness and lethargy that comes with SAD. Additionally, it may reduce some of the depressive symptoms. However, this is only effective if the light is bright enough.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is another form of treatment that is used to treat seasonal affective disorder.
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, seasonal affective disorder should be treated the same way we treat depression. They suggest self-help, lifestyle changes, talking therapies, antidepressants and light therapy as suitable treatments.
Light therapy is designed to provide extra light and compensate for lack of daylight during the winter months.
This is done using a light box; the light should be free of UV rays in order to prevent damage to skin and eyes. Using a light box may result in the decrease of melatonin secreted by the pineal gland. It’s advised that people with SAD use light therapy for at least 30 mins in a day in the morning. It’s relatively harmless although headaches and nausea may develop. Using the light after 5pm is discouraged because it may affect the user’s ability to sleep later on
Antidepressants can be taken by individuals with seasonal affective disorders, although, they may not be effective. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are a type of antidepressant prescribed in order to increase the amount of serotonin in the brain.
According to recent research, there is not enough evidence to prove which treatment method is effective. There has been no comparison between light therapy and other methods so at this point, the choice is down to each patient.
Last updated: 30/05/2020