What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder and Do SAD Lamps Really Work?

As the days grow shorter and darker, many people may soon find themselves feeling the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

According to Psychology Today, as many as 10 million Americans may suffer from SAD with women four times more likely to experience symptoms.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder and What Are the Symptoms?

SAD can also be known as seasonal or winter depression and is a psychological condition triggered by seasonal changes in light.

"It has been described as feeling like hibernation," psychologist and wellbeing consultant Lee Chambers told Newsweek.

"The symptoms of SAD share similarities with depression, and include sustained low mood, reduced interest and enjoyment of life, alongside fatigue and lowered social engagement.

"It can also lead to feeling hopeless and irritable, and finding difficulty in focusing and concentrating. It can also trigger increased eating and sleeping."

Other symptoms can include difficulty waking, weight gain, lack of concentration and decreased libido.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

It's not clear what exactly causes SAD but there are a number of theories as primary care physician Dr. Jeff Foster explained.

"One main theory relates to the idea of 'phase delay' - this is supposed to be due to a disruption in circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle.

A worried woman looks out of window
A worried woman looks out of a window on a rainy day Getty Images

"There is a link with the sleep hormone melatonin and also 'happy hormone' serotonin - which is why patients respond to antidepressants.

"Symptoms tend to start in September, peaking with full blown depression or anxiety in December, and improving in April."

SAD is more common in adults, and the mean age symptoms are first reported is 27-years-old, Foster said.

What Are the Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Getting outside and spending time in natural light can be beneficial for those suffering with SAD.

As the symptoms of SAD are similar to depression, it can be worth considering the same treatments too.

Foster said: "In general, it should be treated the same as non-seasonal depression: so talking therapies, cognitive behavioural therapy in particular and medications such as anti-depressants - both can be very successful."

Chambers also recommended practicing self-care, exercising, eating well and seeking support from friends and family.

What Are SAD Lamps and Do They Work?

Specially crafted lamps for sufferers of SAD are available to purchase. The lamps simulate sunlight and trick the brain into releasing serotonin.

In addition to treating SAD, they can also be used for treating jet lag and circadian rhythm disorders.

"There is good evidence for light therapy," Foster explained.

"We know that bright light therapy helps reduce depressive symptoms more than placebo for Seasonal Affective Disorder."

How Do I Choose the Right SAD Lamp for Me?

SAD lamps are not currently regulated by the Food and Drug Administration so it's important to look out for key features that indicate they are designed for the condition.

"The most important thing to consider is finding one that filters out any UV light, and that operates at a brightness level of 10,000 lux," Chambers said.

That is 20 times the output of most conventional indoor lighting.

Using a SAD lamp for 30-60 minutes a day improves symptoms in 85 per cent of patients, Foster added.

When choosing the right lamp for you, you should consider the strength of the light and how long you want to sit in front of it.

"Brighter light is less time but you're more prone to headache, irritability and fatigue," he said.

You should also factor in your lifestyle so if you are likely to be using it for jet lag, a portable lamp might be best.

If using a SAD lamp, it may take several weeks to alleviate symptoms, though if after six weeks you're still not seeing a change, Foster recommended speaking to your doctor.