If the darker days are getting you down, could seasonal affective disorder (SAD) be the reason behind it?

When the days are dark and short, it’s not uncommon to feel our mood and energy levels drop. But does this mean we’re suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD)? To help answer this, we ask an expert how to spot SAD symptoms and the SAD treatments that may help. Here’s everything you need to know about how to help manage SAD, as well as when and where to get support and help. 

What is SAD & is it a real thing?

"Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression experienced in certain seasons," explains Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind

"Depression is a low mood that lasts for a long time or keeps returning and can have a significant impact on your daily life. If you have SAD, you’ll experience depression during some seasons in particular, or because of certain types of weather or temperatures."

According to the NHS, SAD is widely known as 'winter depression' because the symptoms are often more apparent and severe in winter (although some people do experience it in the summer).

How common is it? According to the NHS, this form of depression affects around two million people in the UK and can affect people of any age – including children – with the mean age of those with symptoms being 27 years old.

"SAD is thought to be more common in countries further from the equator, where there are greater changes in the weather and daylight hours during different seasons, including Britain," explains Stephen. 

And, if a close family member suffers from it, you're more likely to experience it. Women are also three times more likely to be affected by it than men.

What’s the difference between general low mood during winter & SAD?

"Lots of us are affected by changes in seasons – we might find that our mood or energy levels drop when it gets colder or warmer, or notice changes in our eating or sleeping patterns," explains Stephen.

"But, for people with SAD, these seasonal changes have a much greater effect on mood and energy levels, including symptoms of depression that can have a major impact on day-to-day life.

"While people are more aware of SAD happening in winter, when there are fewer hours of daylight, some of us experience SAD at other times of year, for example, in warmer weather."

What are the common causes of SAD?

"What causes SAD isn’t always clear, but we know that a lack of daylight can have a big impact on mood, especially during the autumn and winter," begins Stephen.

"When light hits the back of the eye, messages are passed to the part of the brain responsible for sleep, appetite, sex drive, temperature, mood and activity. If there’s not enough light, these functions are likely to slow down.

‘Some research suggests that a disrupted body clock may also play a role – our body clock may be out of sync with daylight, which might lead to tiredness and feelings of depression."

The NHS also states that the lack of sunlight in the winter months may affect the hypothalamus in the brain, which throws off our body clock or its circadian rhythm. This can have an effect on the production of two important hormones.

The first is melatonin, ie, the sleep hormone. It’s 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 affects your mood, appetite and sleep. A lack of sunlight may lead to lower serotonin levels, which is linked to feelings of depression.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

"The signs and symptoms of SAD will be different for different people, and can vary season to season," says Stephen.

Some of the common ones include:

• Lack of energy

• Persistent low mood

• Finding it hard to concentrate

• A loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities

• Sleep problems, such as sleeping more or less than usual, difficulty waking up, or difficulty falling or staying asleep

• Feeling sad, low, tearful, irritable, guilty or hopeless

• Changes in your appetite, for example feeling more hungry or not wanting to eat

• Decreased sex drive

"If you also have other mental health problems, you might find that things get worse at times when you're affected by SAD,"  adds Stephen.

If you think you might have SAD and are struggling to cope, it’s best to see your GP for support and a proper diagnosis. 

What can I do to help manage SAD?

"If you have SAD, you should be offered the same types of treatments as for other types of depression," says Stephen. "This is because there isn’t currently enough evidence to show whether or not particular treatments help with SAD."

Treatments can range from lifestyle switch-ups to light therapy, talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and antidepressant medicine. Your GP will be able to recommend the most suitable plan of action for you and your needs.

How to help improve SAD symptoms

1. Talking therapies

"There are many different talking therapies that can be effective in treating depression," explains Stephen. "This includes CBT. Your doctor or healthcare professional can talk through the options available in your area and help you find the right kind of talking therapy for you."

2. Medication

"You might also be offered an antidepressant, either on its own or in combination with talking therapy. Your GP might recommend you start taking them a few weeks before the season, when your symptoms normally begin," advises Stephen.

For mild cases of SAD, the following may be worth trying in order to help improve symptoms…

3. Exposure to light

"Living with SAD can be difficult, but there are lots of things you can try that might help. Different things work for different people at different times, so if something doesn't feel possible just now, try not to put pressure on yourself," says Stephen.

 "For those of us with winter SAD, making the most of natural light, for example, spending time in parks or gardens, or simply sitting near a window, might help."

In the absence of the natural stuff, artificial alternatives may help. However, your deskside lamp is unlikely to do the job – what you need is a special light box or LED that simulates sunlight. This is known as light therapy.

Light therapy involves sitting in front of one of these light boxes or an LED that simulates sunlight for around 30 minutes – preferably first thing in the morning. It’s 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.

The evidence supporting light therapy is mixed, but some studies have found that it can be effective when used first thing in the morning for short-term benefits that take effect within a week or so.

Consider: Lumie Vitamin L SAD and energy light

• 10,000 lux at 22cm

• Class IIa medical device

• Energy efficient and UV-free

• Rippled diffuser for a soft, comfortable light

• Warm, white LEDs

• Portrait or landscape use

• Typically 30-minute treatment

• Three-year warranty

Providing 10,000 lux, this portable device can help make up for the lack of sunshine anywhere you go. Side note: Vitamin L is not a vitamin, but a reference to the mood-enhancing properties of light. 

4. Eat a healthy, balanced diet

As well as being good for your 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 feeling fuller for longer, helping to stave off sugar cravings that can be associated with depression.

5. Plan ahead

Don’t wait for your mood to drop to do something about it. "Planning ahead for winter may also help. For example, making meals in advance and freezing them if you know you may lack energy to do this during a difficult period," advises Stephen.

6. Practise sun safety

"For those with summer SAD, it can be helpful to drink plenty of water, find shade where possible and plan to avoid going outside at the hottest times of day if you can," says Stephen.

Consider: Alphabet Water Bottle

• Available in 3 colours

• Hand wash only

This pretty and personalised stainless steel water bottle is the portable way to make sure you stay hydrated in warmer weather.

7. Keep track

"You might find it helps to keep a note of your symptoms, including when they start and if particular things seem to trigger them, including changes in the weather. This could help you notice any patterns," says Stephen.

 "You could also make a note of things that feel helpful for you or what seem to make things worse. This can be helpful, because SAD affects people at some times and not others, so you might not easily remember these details."

How can I help someone with SAD?

"If you are supporting a friend or relative who is experiencing SAD, it can be hard to know what you can do to help," says Stephen.

"Things you could try, while also looking after your own wellbeing, include letting them know you are there for them, supporting them to seek help, asking them what helps and helping them plan ahead for difficult times."

When should I reach out for help & who can I speak to?

"Whether or not you have symptoms of SAD, there might be some occasions or times of year you find especially difficult," explains Stephen. "You don't need to wait to see a pattern before seeking support – it's okay to ask for help at any time.

"It’s common to be affected by changing seasons and weather. But if you’ve noticed changes to feelings, thoughts or behaviours that are affecting your everyday life, try to talk to your GP who should be able to tell you what help and support is available. If you don’t feel ready and able to speak to a GP, it can still be helpful to talk to someone you trust."

Mind has a confidential infoline available on 0300 123 3393, Monday-Friday, 9am-6pm (except for bank holidays).

Find further resources in the Boots Health Hub and support through the Boots Online Doctor Depression and Anxiety Treatment service.