Shedding Light on Seasonal Affected Disorder

Shedding Light on Seasonal Affected Disorder
February 7, 2012 No Comments » Healthy Lifestyle, Managing Common Conditions Brian Fulton


Easing The Winter Blues

Everyone’s psycho-emotional state has ebbs and flows, hence the word ‘mood’. Moods vary, and for some of us, the swings can be quite large. Light exposure, weather and change of seasons are among the many factors that can trigger dips or peaks in mood. Most of us feel the affects of short winter days, but about 4 percent of the population experience serious depression and social withdrawal in the months between October and March. For persons with seasonal affective disorder or SAD, these months can be extremely difficult.

In Canada, women are eight times more likely to suffer from SAD than men. Seasonal depression often appears in people’s 20’s and 30’s. The prevalence of SAD increases until the mid 50’s, when the rates begin to decline. The symptoms of SAD differ from clinical depression and include:

  • Low mood, reduced interest in normally pleasurable activities, decreased concentration
  • Oversleeping (often an increase of 4 hours or more each day)
  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Intense craving for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Withdrawal from social contacts
  • Depression

No one knows for sure what causes SAD, but researchers have cited several causes including; fewer daylight hours reducing important mood altering chemicals in the brain, hormonal disruption, reduced retinal sensitivity to light, low winter temperatures triggering the body to rest and disrupt circadian rhythms, barometric pressure and precipitation levels. Psychological mechanisms and personality traits are also undoubtedly contributing factors.  Conventional treatment consists of light therapy, anti-depressant medications and psychotherapy.

More than 60 studies of light therapy have been conducted, and several qualitative reviews have concluded that light therapy is an effective treatment for SAD, with response rates of 60% to 90% in controlled studies. Two meta-analyses also confirm the efficacy of light therapy against plausible placebo controls. Light therapy involves exposure to bright light of a particular spectrum. Specially designed light therapy boxes or visors have been designed to treat SAD. Treatment is usually continued throughout the winter period when symptoms are present. Cost of these boxes varies from $200 – $400 and can be purchased from many pharmacies and big box stores. Light therapy can also be delivered through a light visor, allowing you to move around your home and remain active while receiving therapy.

Antidepressants and psychotherapy are two other lines of defense that your doctor may prescribe. While studies have not yet been done on massage and SAD, Britain’s National Health Service endorses massage as an adjunctive treatment to light therapy for SAD. Why would massage be used to treat depression? A meta-analysis of thirty-seven studies involving 1,802 participants concluded that patients who received a course of massage therapy exhibited a reduction of depression that was greater than 73 percent of comparison group participants. A reduction of trait anxiety that was greater than 77 percent of comparison group participants was also noted. These reductions were so great that researchers considered massage therapy almost as effective as traditional psychotherapy in the treatment of depression and anxiety1.

If you are considering light therapy, it is extremely important to let your doctor know, because exposure can cause serious reactions with some medications or with certain medical conditions. Light therapy is not recommended without an accurate diagnosis by a trained clinician.  If you are experiencing the symptoms listed above, I highly urge you to seek out professional help, as well as adopt lifestyle changes. Depression of any sort needs to be taken seriously and dealt with. As with any psycho-emotional issue, it is very important that you have a social network of support. All of life’s issues are much harder to deal with if faced alone.

1.  Christopher A. Moyer, James Rounds, and James w. Hannum -University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

For additional information on SAD:

Canadian Consensus Guidelines for the Treatment of SAD

The Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms

Depression Education Information (DIRECT) Toll Free- 1-888-557-5051 ext. 8000


About The Author
Brian Fulton Brian Fulton has been a Massage Therapist in Ontario Canada since 1999. His approach toward health and the human body is broad and holistic in nature. Brian is also the author of The Placebo Effect in Manual Therapy: Improving Clinical Outcomes (available on Amazon)