From SAD lamps to at-home rituals, these treatments may be able to help improve your symptoms

What is seasonal affective disorder and how can you tell if you’re suffering from it? From SAD symptoms to the SAD treatments that may lend a helping hand, here’s what you need to know.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes in seasonal patterns. It’s characterised by its recurrence at the same time each year and, while it is most commonly associated with the winter, some people get it in the summer instead. For those who suffer from it in the colder months, symptoms can start at the beginning of autumn and last until March or April.

It is thought that in the UK, up to 6% of people have “recurrent major depressive episodes with seasonal patterns” and it can affect all ages. That being said, though, it is believed that there is a higher prevalence rate in younger people (the mean age of those presenting symptoms is 27 years oldand children can have it, too.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

According to the NHS, symptoms of SAD can include:

• A persistent low mood

• Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness

• Feeling lethargic and sleepy during the day

• A loss of pleasure or interest in daily activities that you normally enjoy

• Sleeping for longer than usual and finding difficulty in getting up in the morning

• Craving carbohydrates and weight gain

For a proper diagnosis though, it’s best to book in with your GP.  

What causes SAD?

The exact cause of SAD is still being researched, however, the condition is believed to be associated with the complex interplay between light, darkness and mood and behaviour.

It’s thought that the lack of sunlight in the winter months may affect the hypothalamus in the brain, which throws off our body clock or its natural circadian rhythms (innate physiological, mental and behavioural changes that roughly follow a 24-hour cycle such as the sleep/wake cycle). This has an effect on the production of two important hormones.

The first is melatonin, ie the sleep hormone, which makes people feel sleepy. It is thought that those who have SAD may produce higher than normal levels. Hence, why those with SAD may feel lethargic and sleep for longer than usual.

The second is serotonin, ie the hormone that stabilises mood, affects appetite and sleep. Those who have SAD are thought to have lower levels, which is why they may feel persistently low and struggle to find pleasure in day-to-day activities.

While understanding of the condition is still developing, there are certain factors that may make people more susceptible to developing SAD. Genetics is one of them (say, if a close family member suffers from it). It also affects four times as many women as men. Those who live further away from the equator can be more susceptible to it, too.

Seasonal affective disorder treatment – what can help?

According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), SAD should be treated in the same way as other forms of depression.

Treatments can range from lifestyle switch-ups to light therapy, talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy and antidepressant medicine. Your GP will be able to recommend the most suitable plan of action for you and your needs. For mild cases of SAD, the following may be worth trying in order to help improve symptoms.

1. Maximise your exposure to natural light

When sunlight is at its premium during the winter months, grab any chance to benefit from as much natural light as possible. Whether it’s sitting outside at lunch, going for a walk or working by a window, anything that you can do to up your exposure may help.

2. Light therapy

In the absence of the natural stuff, seek out artificial alternatives. However, your deskside side lamp is unlikely to do the job unfortunately. What you’re looking for is a light source of at least 2500 lux (nearly 10 times the amount of ordinary light bulbs).

Light therapy involves sitting in front of a special light box or LED that simulates sunlight, preferably first thing in the morning. It is believed that this may cause the brain to produce more serotonin, while reducing levels of melatonin to help regulate your sleep/wake cycle. To get the most out of light therapy, it can be good to start it in the autumn, as soon as (or even before) symptoms begin.

Sunrise alarm clocks, clocks that imitate the light at dawn, can also help in a similar way. Those with eye conditions or who are taking medication that can increase sensitivity to light may need to speak with their GP to find out if light therapy is suitable for them.

Here are two highly rated product picks to try. Explore more great options here.

Best SAD lamp

Try: Lumie Vitamin L SAD and Energy Light (£89.99)

• Energy efficient and UV-free

• Rippled diffuser for a soft, comfortable light

• Warm white LEDsPortrait or landscape use

• 10,000 lux at 22cm

• Typically 30 minute treatment

• Class IIa medical device

• Three-year warranty

Providing 10,000 lux, you can help make up for the lack of sunshine anywhere thanks to this portable device.

Best sunrise alarm clock

Try: Lumie Bodyclock Shine 300 Wake-up Alarm (£129.99)

• Class I medical device

• FM radio

• Choice of 14 sleep/wake sounds

• Adjustable sunrise light intensity

• Nightlight

• Tap-control snooze

With sunrise and sunset options, this alarm clock is a joy to wake up or fall asleep to during the winter months.

3. Regular exercise

Exercise is often recommended as a way to boost mood if you have mild to moderate depression. How much should you aim for? The NHS advises that adults do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week (although if you’re new to fitness or haven’t worked out for a while, start slowly and gradually build up your weekly activity). If you have an existing medical condition, please speak to your GP before starting any new forms of exercise.

Frequency is more important than intensity and if you can do your workouts outdoors it’s even better.

4. Eat a healthy, balanced diet

As well as being good for maintaining general health, eating a nutritious and varied diet can help maintain energy levels and reduce feelings of lethargy. What’s more, foods such as wholegrains and vegetables are likely to keep you fuller for longer – to stave off the carbohydrate and sugar cravings that can be associated with SAD.

5. Prioritise relaxation

If you have SAD, the NHS recommends avoiding stressful situations as much as possible. We know, it’s easier said than done. Find de-stressing rituals that work for you. For example, breathing exercises, catching up with friends and family, exercise or downloading relaxation apps such as Calm and Headspace. Set small, realistic targets for yourself and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet them.

If you’re struggling and need more support, you can access free psychological therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) on the NHS. You can also refer yourself to an NHS psychological therapies service without a referral from a GP.

6. Touch therapy

There are various massage techniques that may be able to provide a pocket of calm when you need it.

“Massage helps us to release more serotonin and dopamine – the feel-good hormones and reduces cortisol,” explains hypnotherapist, coach at Calmer You and author of The Anxiety Solution, Chloe Brotheridge.

‘“Havening” is an easy way to release more serotonin – using both hands, stroke the tops of your arms downwards from your shoulders to your elbows. This comforting technique may be helpful if you’re feeling anxious or low and can be done anywhere.

Try also using your skincare as a form of self-care. “Another way to help release more serotonin is with facial massage,” says Chloe. “Use a facial oil that your skin likes, or your cleanser, and massage your face in sweeping motions from the inside of the face outwards and upwards. It may help to release a tight jaw and tension in your forehead and is a great calming technique to use first thing in the morning or last thing at night.” For more tips and techniques, check out our complete guide to at-home facial massage.

Best facial oil for massage

Try: Aromatherapy Associates Hydrating Revitalising Face Oil (£49)

• Size: 15ml

Containing revitalising frankincense and radiance-boosting borage and rose, this hydrating facial oil is a treat for skin and senses alike.

Shop more of the best facial oils here.

About the expert featured:

Chloe Brotheridge is a hypnotherapist, mentor and coach at and the host of The Calmer You Podcast. She’s the author of The Anxiety Solution and The Confidence Solution.