Published on February 23rd, 2014 | by Margaret Pardoe0
SAD This Winter?
SAD this winter? SAD aka Seasonal Affective Disorder is a seasonal form of depression usually found in countries which have short daylight hours in winter.
Quick Symptom Check for SAD
You might have any or all of the following symptoms:
- low energy for everyday stuff e.g. work / study
problems with sleep
depression i.e. feeling sad or “low”; tearful; guilty of letting yourself / others down; hopeless; despairing; apathetic; anxious; tense
mood changes in spring and autumn
overeating: particularly craving carbohydrates and putting on weight
prone to illness e.g. colds; infections; other illnesses
low libido i.e. loss of interest in sex
social and relationship problems i.e. irritability; not wanting to see people; difficult behaviour; abusive behaviour
alcohol or drug abuse
NB If you have serious symptoms of depression at any time, you need to seek medical help.
So, what is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
SAD is thought to be linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the winter, and sunlight can affect some of the brain’s chemicals and hormones. It’s thought that light stimulates that part of the brain (the hypothalamus) which controls mood, appetite and sleep, all of which affect how you feel.
SAD is mostly found in places such as Scandinavia, northern Europe, North America, North Asia, and in southern parts of Australia and South America. An estimated 2,000,000 people are affected by SAD in the UK and more than 12 million people across Northern Europe. Conversely, it’s very rare to find anyone with SAD symptoms living near the equator, where there’s consistent sunlight all through the year. But people who have lived in the tropics and then move north are more vulnerable to developing SAD.
As with other types of depression, the two main symptoms of SAD are a low mood and a lack of interest in life with a tendency to be less active than normal and wanting to sleep more. With one of the other possible symptoms being a desire to eat more, particularly carbohydrates, it’s little wonder that SAD at any level has the possibility to increase weight! And SAD is more common in women than men, with up to three times more women than men affected.
Most people affected have a mild version of SAD aka “the winter blues”.
It makes winter feel miserable, and this is what this article mostly addresses. So, if you feel like you want to hibernate under your duvet during the winter and eat chocolate and buttered toast and lose all desire to go to the gym, you probably have SAD at this level. But, read on, there’s lots you can do about it…….
So, what to do about SAD in it’s milder form!
(don’t watch the video below if you live in the south of the UK and are waist deep in rainwater and sewage in your home – it would test your sense of humour to the limit!)
- Well, you could move to somewhere with a better climate (not a practical solution for most people though).
- If funds / life circumstances allow, it makes much more sense to take holidays to somewhere with sunshine during the winter rather than the summer. But occasionally it can make symptoms worse for some people when they get back! You could try it once and see what happens for you!
- But if you are stuck in a northern climate with no escape route planned, try to get as much natural daylight as possible by walking outside as close to the middle of the day as possible, ideally for about an hour. If possible, remove take off your glasses to allow light to enter the eye, but only if you can see well enough not to walk under a bus! Walking outside in the fresh air has other benefits beyond SAD, so is a really good idea for stress reduction and moving lymph around the body which improves the immune system. Trouble is that the last thing you will want to do is go outside for a walk……so you could use a light box early in the day as well (see below)
- Using a light box is very effective and if you use one first thing in the morning, you may then find it easier to persuade yourself to go out into the fresh air a little later. If you decide on a light box, they are now readily available and you could use one in the morning and/or use a light box with an an alarm clock to help you wake up naturally in the morning
- Exercise of any kind has been shown to be effective against depression. Activity is believed to change the level of the mood-regulating hormone serotonin in the brain. The Mental Health Foundation has produced a report on the mental health benefits of exercise. Their chief executive, Dr Andrew McCulloch, said: “There’s convincing evidence that 30 minutes’ vigorous exercise three times a week is effective against depression, and anecdotal evidence that lighter exercise will have a beneficial effect too“If you have a tendency towards SAD, outdoor exercise will have a double benefit, because you’ll gain some daylight.”
- There’s also a herb that can be used for mild to moderate SAD: St John’s Wort. It would be advisable to see a qualified herbalist rather than attempting to self-medicate as this herb can’t be used in conjunction with light therapy because of a risk of photosensitivity.
And in the meantime just watch / listen to this beautiful version of “Over the Rainbow^ by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole from Hawaii, whose music is also available via Amazon. You only get rainbows when there’s rain!
Why do we need daylight?
When light hits the retina, messages are passed to the hypothalamus which, as said before, affects sleep, appetite, sex drive, temperature, mood and activity. If there’s not enough light, these functions are likely to slow down.
The amount of light needed varies from person to person.
There are several hormones involved in SAD. The main one is serotonin, and people experiencing depression have been found to have lower levels of serotonin, particularly in winter. It’s thought that the brain’s system for releasing and absorbing serotonin to regulate moods might not be working well in people with SAD.
Then there’s melatonin. Produced by the pineal gland in the brain this is the hormone that makes us sleep when it’s dark and stops producing it when it becomes light again and we wake up. People with SAD have higher melatonin levels in the winter, which is what happens to animals that hibernate!
You also have a “body clock” (aka circadian rhythm) which is set by the brain by the hours of daylight. It’s thought that with SAD, this may not be working properly and slows down. But, alternatively, there are those that believe that this could just be a natural process for everyone in the winter months.
It’s also been shown that SAD has been triggered by life events such as bereavement, serious illness or anything traumatic.
It can also start after changes in diet, medication, street drugs or alcohol.
Severe SAD is serious!
If you have SAD symptoms that are not improved by the suggestions for the “winter blues”,
or if the symptoms have a significant impact on your life, you may need to seek help from your medical practitioner.
Some of the possible treatments include the following:
Counselling, psychotherapy or cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) can all be used to help with SAD symptoms. CBT is often offered for SAD and aims to identify connections between your thoughts, feelings and behaviour, and helps you develop practical skills to manage them.
Antidepressant drugs work on brain chemicals (such as serotonin) to lift your mood. They don’t cure SAD, but can help you cope better with some of the symptoms.