If you’re finding yourself cursing the reality of darker mornings and even darker, longer nights, you could be dealing with the pangs of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a very real type of depression that becomes more severe as winter approaches.
Despite how it may feel, you’re not the only one — it’s thought that around 10-20 per cent of people in the UK experience “mildly debilitating” symptoms of seasonal affective disorder as the weather gets colder and six per cent of adults will experience “recurrent major depressive episodes with seasonal pattern”. Currently, the average age at which seasonal affective disorder symptoms present themselves is 27-years-old in both men and women. Both genders are equally affected.
Despite enjoying an extra hour in bed, most of us will, especially at this time, be spending the majority of daylight hour indoors. For many, this could impact mental health — a 2019 YouGov poll found that 29 per cent of UK adults will experience some kind of depressive symptoms this winter, while six per cent of us will suffer seasonal affective disorder to the point where they’re unable to work or to function properly.
Worried about SAD? Don’t be. We’re here to help with our digestible guide on seasonal affective disorder including expert advice, study commentary, actionable advice, product information and more.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
A form of depression that’s directly related to the changing of the seasons, seasonal affective disorder is experienced most commonly when summer transitions into winter. As it’s as seasonal issue, seasonal affective disorder is often experienced every 12 months. “Patients often begin experiencing symptoms of depression during autumn and often do not feel an improvement in mood until the spring,” explains Dr. Chun Tang, general Practitioner at Pall Mall Medical.
But how is seasonal affective disorder caused?
The research is sporadic, but one cause, it’s believed, is the correlation between the reduced exposure to sunlight and shorter days in winter. That’s because the hormone melatonin, responsible for controlling our sleep cycles, becomes “phase delayed” by people experiencing seasonal affective disorder, leading us to feel sluggish, tired and irritable — regardless of how many espressos have bene imbibed. Stress levels will rise, too, thereby impacting our mental wellbeing, immunity and overall health.
Similarly, serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates anxiety, happiness and mood, could have a bigger impact than previously thought. Due to winter having shorter days and darker weather, there typically isn’t enough natural daylight, which causes a drop in serotonin levels in our brains. On a biological level, this increases the likelihood of someone experiencing a depressive episode.
Seasonal Affective Disorder: What Are The Symptoms?
According to the NHS, symptoms of SAD can include:
- A persistent low mood
- A loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
- 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
“The symptoms are similar to those of depression – low mood, sleep difficulties, feelings of hopelessness, losing enjoyment of things we used to enjoy,” explains Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic. “However, they’re cyclical, usually beginning in autumn and winter and then improving again in the spring and summer.”
People dealing with seasonal affective disorder can also experience “changes in appetite,” according to Dr Naveen Puri, Lead Physician at Bupa Health Clinics, with patients “usually feeling more hungry than normal and [experiencing] sleep problems.”
Things You Can Do to Treat SAD
“If the lack of daylight is affecting your mood, try to make the most of the hours when it’s light and get outside. A cloudy or rainy day can still provide your body with the light it needs,” says Dr Puri. “Whether it’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning or something you fit into your lunch break, get outside while it’s light and take a well-earned break.”
However, we recognise that getting more sun on your skin isn’t always an option. Luckily, you can banish seasonal affective disorder in other ways. For example, a cold shower will activate your sympathetic nervous system and, according to the journal Medical Hypotheses, spike your levels of noradrenaline to help fight feelings of unhappiness that could be caused by the change in season.
Similarly, you may want to switch your afternoon or evening workout to a morning session, as a morning spent pounding the pavements releases anandamide (your body’s version of marijuana’s THC) and mood-boosting dopamine.
Supplementation is an option, too. This time, we’re not talking Vitamin D, but instead 5HTP — it’s made from the amino acid tryptophan, that’s converted into the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Can Light Therapy Help With Seasonal Affective Disorder?
For some, light therapy offers a solution to seasonal affective disorder. People with SAD often find that light therapy can help improve their mood during autumn and winter. Light therapy involves sitting by a lamp — often called a SAD lamp or a light box — for half an hour to an hour every morning.
These lamps are specifically intended to lessen the effects of SAD and come in different designs, fixtures and intensities. It’s thought that the light box (or SAD lamp) mimics the sunlight that’s easily missed during darker months and helps reduce the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin while boosting feel-good serotonin. Sunrise alarm clarks are similar, too — helping your body wake up calmer by gradually lighting up your bedroom in the morning.
The SAD alarm clock gradually emits light for a pre-determined time before you wake up, helping your wake feeling rested, ready and — crucially — less groggy. As you know, regular alarm clocks, which jolt you awake suddenly, can cause a spike in the stress hormone cortisol. That’s a huge no-no if you’re trying to wrangle stress levels into check.
What Do They Experts Say About Light Therapy?
The benefits of light therapy are linked to their potential impact on our sleep-wake cycle which can sometimes fall out of balance in the winter months when we are exposed to long periods of darkness,” says Dr Touroni. “From my understanding, it is best to use it [light lamps] in the morning, soon after waking, and for about 20 – 30 minutes.”
Dr Puri agrees. “Evidence around light-therapy is still not 100% conclusive, but it does look as though it can deliver positive short-term effects. This means it could be a helpful way to banish the winter blues until the days start getting longer.
“If you work indoors make an effort to let in as much sunlight to your working environment as you can. Open any curtains or blinds and sit by a window. You can also try using a SAD lamp as light therapy.” (Continued below)
Best SAD Lamps and Light Boxes
With that in mind, here are a few SAD lamps and light boxes that we recommend:
What Else Can I Do to Banish Winter Blues?
“Antidepressants and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) are other methods that can be used to treat SAD, especially when it’s having a significant impact on somebody’s wellbeing. It’s a good idea to speak to your GP, explain your symptoms and work together to find the best method for you,” explains Dr Puri.
“Creating a routine may seem like a simple thing to do but it can really help manage SAD, especially when working from home. Have set times that you go to bed and get up each day, aiming for 7-8 hours of sleep. Then aim to take regular breaks, and go outside during these times, whether for a quick stroll round the block or for a longer walk when you can. Also, make sure you set yourself time to exercise and socialise – all of which will help to boost your mood.”
Foods That Help Seasonal Affective Disorder
Numerous studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish can help fight off depression by boosting production of dopamine and serotonin. Fatty fish are also great sources of vitamin D. What’s more, fish is a great muscle-builder.
A great seasonal vegetable. Full of folate, which plays an important role in the production of red blood cells, sweet potatoes sit lower on the Glycemic Index, helping maintain a steady blood-sugar level than your standard spud. You’ll have more energy and won’t crash shortly afterwards, either.
With the wind howling outside and the fire inside crackling, there’s no better time to put a film on, make yourself a cuppa and start dunking your chocolate. And we’re cool with that, providing you do it right. Many studies have shown that eating dark chocolate can reduce stress-causing hormones, thanks to antioxidants called flavonoids. Pick something that is 75 per cent cocoa, and unsweetened. It’s better for you, easier on your teeth and will limit those sudden sugar crashes.
A healthy salad isn’t many people’s first choice as a heart-warming winter meal. However, dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale and broccoli are rich in folate and vitamin B12, which have been found to boost serotonin levels.
Whole Grains and Complex Carbs
During the winter our appetite increases. Many seek foods that they think will cheer them up but will actually have an opposite effect, leaving you feeling sluggish and down. If you want to go hard on carbs, go for whole grains such as oatmeal or complex carbohydrates like brown rice. These dense carbohydrates have been found to increase serotonin levels. They will also leave you feeling fuller for longer.
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