Don’t suffer the symptoms of SAD this winter

SAD clock

As the darker nights draw in and temperatures start to drop, there are some simple techniques to help beat the seasonal blues, writes Rebecca Paddick

Do you feel low during the winter months? You’re not alone. In fact many of us feel the winter blues. For some, however, the symptoms are more persistent and more serious.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can be a debilitating winter illness. A type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern, it is sometimes known as ‘winter depression’ because the symptoms are usually more apparent and more severe during the winter months.

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, approximately 3% of us will be badly enough affected by SAD that it interferes with our normal life.

“Symptoms can start as early as August and are at their worst from November to February, usually disappearing by April,” said Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services for AXA PPP healthcare.

Causes of SAD

The exact cause of SAD isn’t fully understood, but it’s often linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter autumn and winter days. Dr Winwood added: “SAD can be caused by a lack of light during winter when days are shorter with less sunshine, and the sun is not as bright. However, other conditions which reduce light levels can bring on the symptoms of SAD at any time of the year, for example, prolonged periods of dull weather in summer, or low levels of light at home or at work.”

The main theory is that a lack of sunlight might stop a part of the brain called the hypothalamus working properly, which may affect the: production of melatonin – a hormone that makes you feel sleepy; in people with SAD, the body may produce it in higher than normal levels. It may also affect the production of serotonin – a hormone that affects your mood, appetite and sleep; a lack of sunlight may lead to lower serotonin levels, which is linked to feelings of depression.

Give yourself a boost

Many people feel that they suffer with loss of energy and feel more emotional during the winter months. However, as Dr Winwood explained, there are many things that we can do to help with this – a few ideas are:

  • Exercise – it can be hard to feel motivated to keep active as the nights draw in but just 20 minutes of brisk walking, jogging, cycling or house work that raises your heart-rate can really help you feel more energetic and happier.
  • Get daylight – natural daylight supports our circadian clock and help us sleep at night. So even if you seem to go to work when it’s dark and also go home when it’s dark, make sure you get out in the lunch hour – even better use it as a time to do your daily exercise.
  • Sleep – good quality sleep is essential for good mental and physical wellbeing. Cut down stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol as they can disrupt our body clocks.
  • Stay connected – make dates for social time with friends and family. Always have something to look forward to.
  • Explore your stress triggers ­– write them down and share with a close friend. Perhaps you can look at these experiences in a different way.
  • Eat well – you may feel like eating lots of comfort food – these tend to be high in processed sugars which impact your energy and your mood. Remember your 5 a day and get loads of fresh fruit and veg.
  • Hydrate yourself – water can really help.

Shine a light

Light boxes simulate sunshine, and have been shown to be effective in over 80% of diagnosed cases of SAD.

Most modern light boxes emit an intensity of 10,000 lux and treatment will take 30 mins – 1 hour a day. By way of comparison, the intensity of a bright summer day can be 100,000 lux. Treatment usually starts to work within 3 to 4 days.

“But before you go down this route, it’s worth trying out some the suggestions in the answer above,” said Dr Winwood. “Not only are they free but they’ll help boost your mood and improve your overall wellbeing while you’re at it.”

There are number of things you can do to try and improve your mood and energy levels, but if the feelings persist or get worse as winter develops, please visit your GP to discuss possible treatments and support.

Symptoms of SAD can include:

  • a persistent low mood
  • a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
  • irritability
  • feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
  • feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
  • sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
  • craving carbohydrates and gaining weight
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