SAD but true: your body needs the sun
In the southern hemisphere we generally have an abundance of sunshine, but prolonged periods without sunshine can lead to seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
First identified in the 1980s, SAD is a type of depression that affects a person during the same season each year.
Because of their drawn-out winters, shorter days and lack of sunlight, many people in North America, northern Europe and the Scandinavian countries suffer from SAD. The US National Mental Health Association estimates that the condition affects around 20 million Americans.
The incidence of SAD in Australia isn’t as severe (even the harshest Australian can't compare with parts of North America and Scandinavia). However, research indicates that about 1 in 300 Australians does still experience seasonal affective disorder.
Who’s at risk?
Seasonal changes in mood and energy are common, and most of us can adapt. But for some people these changes tend to be more pronounced. In fact, they can actually develop into a full-blown episode of wintertime gloom or depression.
Anyone can get SAD, but it mostly affects:
- People living far from the equator
- Individuals aged between 15 and 55
- People with a family history of SAD
- Individuals living in areas where winter days are short
Initially thought to be a result of the short photoperiod (day length) of winter, researchers now believe the cause of SAD lies in the delay of our internal 24-hour cycle (circadian rhythms).
They now say the condition is the result of an imbalance in the brain’s pineal gland, which controls the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. So, the less sunlight we’re exposed to, the more melatonin our bodies produce.
People who suffer from SAD don’t display the typical features of depression such as loss of appetite or insomnia, but may:
- Lose interest in routine activities
- Eat more than usual
- Experience cravings for carbohydrates
- Pick up weight
- Sleep more and feel drowsy during the daytime
- Feel grumpy, moody, sad or anxious
Before a medical expert can diagnose you with seasonal affective disorder, he or she will check if you’re displaying any of the symptoms.
You doctor will also conduct a mental health assessment that will include measuring your emotional functioning and your ability to think, reason and remember. Written or verbal tests and blood and urine lab tests may also be necessary.
Throughout the entire process, your medical expert will assess your behaviour, thinking, reasoning, appearance, mood, memory and your ability to express yourself. Prepare yourself to be asked about your personal and family life, and your history of SAD.
Treatment will include, but isn’t limited to, light therapy and/or antidepressants.
These two types of light therapy may help:
- Dawn simulation, where a dim light goes on in the morning while you sleep and becomes brighter over time, just like a sunrise.
- Bright light treatment, where you position yourself in front of a light box for 30 minutes or more in the morning.
Light therapy is quite effective and may take as little as 3 to 5 days, or up to 2 weeks, to alleviate your symptoms.
With the help of antidepressants, you might start feeling better within 1 to 3 weeks, but it can take as long as 6 to 8 weeks to really make a significant difference.
Remember: Depression should never be taken lightly, whether it’s as a result of SAD, or not. Consult your doctor if you or someone you know displays any of the symptoms listed above.