Following on from a successful pilot programme carried out in Cornwall in 2008/2009, the UK Met Office may soon be offering help to those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD as it is more commonly known.
If it goes ahead, the plan is, they will provide advice and send out text messages or email alerts when gloomy weather is on the way to give people a couple of days notice to use their light boxes or to take other appropriate action.
Do you suffer?
The symptoms of SAD are mainly lethargy, sleep disturbances, carbohydrate cravings and weight gain, loss of libido and depression and anxiety. SAD also causes the immune system to weaken which of course means more colds, flu, and more misery. The symptoms usually appear gradually as the winter months approach and the amount of sunlight reduces, only to disappear again in spring.
For some people with SAD, the symptoms can be so severe they are disabling and make the winter months a living nightmare. It is estimated that around 2 million people in the UK alone suffer from SAD, however, no one knows the true number of people suffering from SAD because for many, the symptoms are no more than a mild inconvenience and these people are unlikely to associate their winter blues with something that can be alleviated or avoided.
Subsyndromal SAD may be more common than we think
There’s a very mild form of the winter blues where the sufferer feels lethargic and has some sleep problems, and they may also crave carbohydrates and eat more, but they don’t experience any symptoms of depression or anxiety – this is known as Subsyndromal SAD. So, there are many people who could be suffering from this mild form of SAD who don’t even know it.
SAD is rare around the equator
SAD is very rare in those living around the equator where the sun is high in the sky and the length of the days and nights are roughly equal. That’s not the case for those living in the Northern Hemisphere where the sun remains very low in the sky during the winter months.
Melatonin levels increase
Some reckon that SAD is caused by changes in melatonin production. Melatonin is basically a hormone that helps to regulate our circadian rhythm or body clock. As the sun goes down, melatonin production increases and we start to feel sleepy and at the same time Serotonin levels drop. Serotonin is the feel good hormone.
Vitamin D levels to drop
Others say that SAD is caused by Vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is often called the sunshine vitamin. This is because we get most of the Vitamin D we need from the sun shining on our skin. Most people are quite unaware if they are deficient in vitamin D as doctors don’t routinely check vitamin D levels. So, it’s quite simple; the main cause of SAD is lack of sunlight.
According to the Daily Express, anyone living 52 degrees North cannot produce enough Vitamin D during the winter months To put this in perspective, this is anyone living north of Birmingham.
A Brighter Outlook for all
Back in 2008/2009 the Met Office in the UK ran a pilot programme (Brighter Outlook) in Cornwall in order to ascertain the feasibility and benefit of delivering an innovative weather-based alert service as part of a care package for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Those who participated in the programme were all given a light box and a self-help booklet. To measure how effective the Brighter Outlook care package was the participants each had three sessions with a mental health worker where a Patient Health Questionnaire was completed. Each participant was also asked to evaluate the programme at the end of the study.
The results showed that there was a marked improvement in symptoms after only 4 weeks on the programme, and overall, the service was considered highly effective, with the vast majority claiming the service should be promoted and more widely available.
The Met Office are now considering rolling out the service to the wider public to offer advice and support for those suffering from SAD, just as they currently offer advice and help to those suffering from Hay Fever or Asthma, or how to deal with heat waves or particularly cold spells.
According to the Telegraph, Patrick Saychon, the health business manager at the Met Office, said the Met Office was in talks with the NHS, the manufacturers of lightboxes and private health experts about the “Brighter Outlook” service.
“We are talking to a different number of people” he said, reported the Telegraph.
“If we deliver a service that warns sufferers about the period of gloomy weather and provides them with materials, it will help them improve their mental health.”
In the meantime, anyone who feels they may be suffering from SAD should seek advice from their doctor.