What is Seasonal Affective Disorder and how does it affect us?

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder and how does it affect us?

Many of us begin our day in the winter with a commute to work under the cover of darkness, before sitting inside under artificial lighting only to head back to the sanctum of our house again in the dark. These shorter days, accompanied by a bleaker weather forecast, can lead you to become somewhat less cheerful than you are during the summer or spring. But this is much more than just the ‘winter blues’.

Affecting around one in ten people in the United Kingdom, Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short, is recognised as a depressive illness linked to a lack of sunlight and shorter periods of daylight. It has been more than 30 years since psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal first used the term, when he included it in a paper following a move from sunny Johannesburg to the north-eastern corner of the United States.

Sadly it is a condition which is often dismissed. Though in actual fact, this form of depression has the ability to really affect our wellbeing during the winter. It is therefore vitally important that we speak about it and raise as much awareness about Seasonal Affective Disorder as possible. Here we will tell you about SAD and what you can do to help combat it.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD is clinically defined as a form of depression, of which it shares many of the same symptoms. However, SAD follows a distinctive pattern, where the condition worsens during the winter months, before tailing off again in the spring. It doesn’t prejudice, it can effect men and women, boys and girls of any age. However, the most common cases are in those aged 18-30, with the illness continuing on into middle-age and even older-age.

The Blurt Foundation, a social enterprise dedicated to supporting those with depression, described the condition to us: “Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. Symptoms usually come on in Autumn, peak in the winter months and then improve in the Spring. About 3% of the population of the UK are thought to live with it.”

While Norman Rosenthal, a world-renowned psychiatrist and the man who first described and named Seasonal Affective Disorder, offered further insight: “SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a condition that affects approximately 1 in 20 people in the United States. When the days become shorter and darker, often starting in October, people with SAD feel less energetic, need more sleep, tend to overeat (especially sweets and starches), gain weight, withdraw from friends and family, are less effective at work, and if this progresses, can become sad and depressed.”

Seasonal Affective Disorder is most common in places of extreme latitudes, where daylight hours are fewer. The severity of symptoms of SAD can vary from feeling more irritable than normal to being unable to function during the winter months without treatment.

What are the symptoms?

What are the symptoms?

Sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder will experience similar symptoms to those who have been diagnosed with a serious form of depression. And yet, many do not take it as seriously. You may notice a feeling of hopelessness, find it hard to concentrate, experience changes to your sleeping pattern and diet, a lack of energy and find activities that you once enjoyed harder to partake in.

Oversleeping and fatigue

One of the most prominent symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder is that you will be oversleeping. Sufferers have been noted to jump from around 7.5 hours of sleep during the summer, to 10 hours in the winter. But this increase doesn’t actually mean that you are more refreshed. Instead, those effected tend to notice an increase in fatigue.

People with SAD may well get between 9 and 10 hours during the night, but are still able to sleep for an extended period of time during the afternoon if presented with the opportunity. And that time at night isn’t solid sleep either. Often it is broken up with disturbances, waking up in the middle of the night, a struggle to actually nod off and even insomnia.

Increased desire for carbohydrates

Increased desire for carbohydrates

It is a condition that can cause an increase in appetite. Some sixty-five percent of those who have SAD say that they notice they are hungrier during the winter, particularly for carbohydrates. The satisfaction that comes from a dense, starchy dish like pasta is extremely short-lived and can cause longer-lasting problems. It is believed that nearly seventy-five percent of SAD sufferers put on weight, this can further bring down self-esteem and morale.

Anxiety and a low mood

SAD is a form of depression and in turn has a number of the same symptoms. The feelings of sadness and hopelessness are increased during winter. These can often come along with a lower passion for the same interests that you once enjoyed, as well as feeling less sociable than usual and having a below-average sex drive.

It is important to differentiate from the two conditions, however. If you find that these issues only arise when the cold weather comes around then you are likely to have SAD, but if you notice that you are sad, feeling hopeless and anxious daily for at least two weeks then you could have depression.

Here is a full list of Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms:

- A constant low mood

- Not receiving the same pleasure in activities you once enjoyed

- Feeling irritable

- Feeling guilty, worthless

- Having a lack of energy

- The ability to sleep during the day

- An increased appetite, particularly for carbohydrates

- Problems socialising

- Deteriorating relationships

- Noticeable joint pain and being more susceptible to colds and infections

- Struggling to concentrate

- Feeling more stressed

What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Also known as ‘Winter Depression’, research on what specifically causes SAD is thin on the ground, though here at Champneys we do know that it is linked to shortened exposure to direct sunlight. The NHS has highlighted one theory, suggesting that a lack of sunlight over a period of time can stop the hypothalamus (a part of the brain) from working. This in turn affects your internal body clock – the circadian rhythm, as well as the production of melatonin which is a hormone that makes you feel sleepy, and serotonin, which affects your mood, appetite and sleep. If you are not getting enough sunlight then you will have lower levels of serotonin and higher than normal levels of melatonin. 

While Norman Rosenthal points at three causes: “There are three main causes of SAD: Biological vulnerability, decreased environmental light, and stress. Biological vulnerability (SAD tends to run in families), and also varies with gender (women are about three times more likely to develop SAD than men).”

“The main cause of SAD is a lack of light,” added The Blurt Foundation. “During the winter months we are exposed to less natural light, both because the days are shorter and greyer, and also because we spend less time outside due to the inclement weather. This affects levels of hormones (melatonin and serotonin) in the part of the brain controlling mood, sleep and appetite.”


Are there any treatments?

Are there any treatments?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, much like depression itself, is sadly something that many people go through without official diagnosis. Too many people are putting it down to just being the winter blues, or perhaps attributing it down to excess stress at work rather than a mental illness. It often takes sufferers two cycles (two winters) to accept that they have the condition. But no one who is going through something so damaging should have to suffer for so long without support.

When asked what you can do to fight the illness, The Blurt Foundation recommended making some changes to your day-to-day: “Making lifestyle changes can also be helpful. We should aim to spend as much time as possible in sunlight (not always easy when we have an office job!), eat well, exercise regularly (it boosts serotonin) and aim to reduce unnecessary stress from our life.”

Here we have listed a few treatments for SAD which have been known to help with the symptoms. Try to incorporate as many as possible, though if you do not see a notable improvement in your condition then do speak to your GP or visit an expert.

Keep active

Keep active

Spend time outside

When you consider that the main cause of SAD is a lack of sunlight, it seems pretty obvious that you should be getting outside to combat its effects. Try and get out during the brightest parts of the day and particularly those clear, crisp winter days.

Of course, the majority of us are tied down to jobs where we cannot just get up and go whenever we like. So when lunchtime finally rolls around, get out and walk. Or if you have a look at the forecast and notice that the sun will be out a little earlier or later, why not ask your boss if you can just take lunch around that time?

Get some light

The days are shorter and the weather is certainly bleaker, but that doesn’t mean you are completely without light. You can purchase a light therapy box, which mimics sunshine and can significantly help your recovery. In 2014, the Journal of Affective Disorders found that just one week of light therapy can significantly help your symptoms. However many people do continue to use their lights throughout the winter months, with sufferers typically sitting in front of them for 30 minutes a day.

Getting more exposure to light was a recommendation made by a spokesman from SANE, one of the UK’s leading mental health charities:  “It is thought that SAD may be linked to a lack of exposure to sunlight, although the condition is not fully understood. As such, treatment can include lifestyle changes that increase the amount of time spent outdoors (particularly during the winter months), the use of light boxes which replicate sunlight, as well as talking therapies and medication.  

Similarly, you can buy a Dawn Simulator, which works as an alarm clock. Though rather than abruptly waking you up with noise, it will produce a light which gradually gets brighter and brighter.

Lumie has been conducting research and designing bright lights as a treatment for SAD since 1991. We spoke to Ruth Jackson, PR manager at Lumie, who shed some light on how their products can be a serious benefit:  

Lumie Vitamin L

“The short days and dark mornings of winter make waking up a struggle for many of us. The dark winter evenings further impact on our internal body clocks to the point where 24% of us experience the winter blues and 7% * within that group suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which can be disabling to the point where you struggle to function normally.

*Data based on an ICM Online Omnibus Survey conducted for Lumie in 2007/8 in which 2,000 people in the UK were polled.”

“Waking with light will provide the stimulus the body needs to help keep the body clock on track by suppressing the production of the sleep hormones and stimulating the get up and go ones like cortisol so you find yourself waking naturally feeling alert and ready to get up.

“We can also use light at any time of day to acutely boost our mood, alertness and performance.  This could include going outside to receive natural light or using a light box at your desk or in your home.”

Dr Revell, a chronobiologist based at Surrey University commented on Seasonal Affective Disorder:

“A brightly lit environment has been shown to stimulate your brain resulting in an increase in mood and alertness. Also, a lot of people in winter, because they’re not getting that early morning light cue, drift later in time making it harder for them to get up and get going and that obviously has a knock-on effect. You can use early morning light or a dawn simulator to shift your body clock back and keep it synchronized so you find it easier to wake and get up in the mornings.”

Lumie Bodyclock LUXE 750D

Two new products from Lumie include the Vitamin L, which provides a slim-line light therapy solution, and the Lumie Bodyclock LUXE 750D, a device which in just a couple of weeks can help you reach a regular sleeping and waking routine.

“We can also use light at any time of day to acutely boost our mood, alertness and performance.  This could include going outside to receive natural light or using a light box at your desk or in your home.” Said Ruth.

Keep yourself warm

Being warm and comfortable can cut the effects of SAD by half. Drink more hot drinks throughout the day and particularly in the early morning and evening. Wrap up as well. Treat yourself to a thick, well insulated jacket with necessary accessories like gloves and scarves, or a blanket in the house.

Eat well

Eat well

As we previously mentioned, you may notice an increased desire for starchy carbohydrates during the winter period. Our ancient ancestors would have seen winter as a time to overeat in a means to survive the cold, but embracing a healthy diet can help in your battle against SAD.

A balanced diet will give you a much needed morale boost, as well as giving you more energy and preventing you from putting on any excess weight, which can affect your mood. By all means, enjoy the odd comfort meal, but counter it with an increased consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables and make sure that protein features prominently in each meal.

These foods can specifically combat depression and the symptoms of SAD:

- Turkey: It isn’t just for Christmas. This meat contains the protein building-block tryptophan, which is used to create serotonin. You can get turkey bacon, sausages, mince and the whole bird, meaning you won’t get bored.

- Brazil nuts: One Brazil nut alone has nearly half of your daily requirements of selenium, which protects your body from particles called free radicals.

- Carrots: Crammed full of beta-carotene, studies have proven that carrots can help battle depression.

- Salmon: High in polyunsaturated fats, and in particular, omega-3 fatty acids, salmon has been known to boost your mood and fight depression.

- Coffee: It is widely believed that coffee helps in the fight against depression, though it is not known exactly why. Caffeine itself is a tried and tested pick-me-up.

- Milk: Sufferers of SAD are known to have vitamin D deficiencies. Milk is a brilliant source of this, but if you aren’t into the white stuff try canned fish and enriched cereals.

- Clams and mussels: head to the fish counter for B-12 rich clams and mussels. Otherwise, try lean beef and eggs.

Be social

Be social

Perhaps the most dangerous and damaging impact that Seasonal Affective Disorder can have on you is how it can jeopardise your relationships with people. You may become more irritable, less social and simply be without the energy to go out and do things with your friends and family. This isn’t just you being a little tired or feeling a little under the weather, this is a serious symptom of SAD.

You might, at times, feel like you would just rather be alone, but this is a slippery slope. Your reluctance to socialise in an attempt to make yourself feel better can leave you isolated, particularly if you live alone. Make an effort for your friends and your family as they will, without trying, be able to grab you by the hand and pull you through to spring. Regular days out, catch ups, or dinner with a loved one will dramatically increase your mood and will help to busy yourself. The more you occupy yourself with friends and family the quicker the time will pass.


Many sufferers of SAD will be able to feel it coming, or know when their symptoms worsen. If you have suffered from it in the past you may be able to recall the same tell-tale signs. Allow yourself to reflect on the previous part of the year when you were struggling and think about how you managed to deal with it, or what you wish you had done differently. Take this forward with you, or, if you feel like you are in a much better place, share them with others.

Speak to someone

Speak to someone

You are not alone in this fight. You are not the first person to feel the effects of winter and you will certainly not be the last. Get online, get on the phone and get talking to people. Check out forums, blogs, resources and websites which dedicate themselves to helping those suffering with a form of mental health issue.

Alternatively, speak to your GP about seeking help from counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy or psychotherapy. They will help guide you towards what services the NHS can provide, like free care. For expert advice from those dedicated to Seasonal Affective Disorder, you can join SADA. It costs £20 to join the UK’s only registered charity dedicated to SAD and will help you with support, informational packs and discounts of products designed to help with the symptoms.

But sometimes you just need a familiar face, or voice. Go round to your parents, visit your children, your friends, siblings, whoever it may be to relax, talk to and even open up about what you are going through.

Millions of people in the UK are affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder in one way or another and sadly, many of them are tackling the issue alone. If you notice that you are more irritable than usual, feeling lower and despairing more than you were in the summer then accept that there is a problem. The first step is accepting the issue, but the hardest is addressing it. You are not alone and do remember that this is only periodical, just make sure you take the right steps to make winter as comfortable as you possibly can.