As the nights continue to draw in and the grey clouds gather, those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder are dreading the autumn and winter months more than most.
But they may soon be offered help in the form of a warning directly from the Met Office of impending gloomy weather. The national forecaster is working with doctors to develop a service that will send text messages or emails to SAD sufferers with advice on how best to cope with the oncoming period by using artificial lightboxes or cognitive behavioural therapy.
SAD is thought to be caused when a lack of natural light makes the brain produce more melatonin, the sleep hormone, and less serotonin, which lifts moods, leading to depression and lethargy. As many as one in 50 people suffer from the condition.
A study by the Met Office and the University of Groningen found that sufferers felt worse during dark, cloudy periods or when there is less sunlight, as well as during the winter months.
It led to a pilot study of 80 patients commissioned by the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Primary Care Trust. The researchers concluded that the condition could be improved by warning victims of a period of dark weather so they could seek help such as counselling sessions and prepare to spend some time in front of a lightbox to boost vitamin and hormone levels.
Patrick Saychon, the health business manager at the Met Office, said it 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. “We hope to roll something as next winter.
“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.”
Lightboxes contain tubes giving off a light considered the equivalent of bright morning sunshine. The light should be about an arm’s-length away and treatment time is usually about 30 minutes. Users are said to feel the benefit after about seven days.
Victims of SAD suffer from depression, lack of energy, sleep disturbance and loss of interest in sex during the winter, especially in dark periods.
Brighter Outlook would give predictions on levels of sunlight and cloud cover so that sufferers of SAD can seek advice. “The health of people with SAD may be impacted by short-term changes in the weather as well as seasonal changes,” said Mr Saychon.
“Forecasting sunshine duration or cloud cover may help predict when symptoms will worsen and administering light treatment in response to these forecasts may help to prevent the predicted worsening of symptoms.”
The Met Office already provides a service through primary care trusts to warn people with lung conditions via text or email of cold weather, which can cause shortness of breath. Cold weather and heatwave alerts are also sent to the Department of Health.