Here in the UK, the clocks go back in just two weeks, and we enter the darkest time of the year. Add to that the colder weather and it’s the perfect ingredients for Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD as it’s commonly known.
The problem is, many people suffer from the ‘winter blues’ but don’t know that there is a legitimate diagnosis.
There are also several misconceptions surrounding SAD, which can lead to confusion about symptoms.
Although we have come a long way, there are still stigmas surrounding depression. Sadly, depression affects more and more people each year.
If you are someone who gets more depressed in the winter months, then read on. It could be that you have SAD and there are things you can do to ease the symptoms.
What is Seasonal Depression? Or Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. The condition typically begins in the autumn and continues into the winter months, when we have longer periods of darkness and colder temperatures.
However, some forms can cause depression in the spring or early summer.
In this article we are going to look at how SAD affects us during the winter months.
The SAD Facts
Women are four times more likely than men to experience SAD. Research suggests this is connected to lower levels of oestrogen and an overproduction of melatonin, which causes sleepiness.
Symptoms can appear at any age, but most commonly affect people between the ages of 20-30.
Typically, the further we are from the equator, the more we are at risk for seasonal depression. This is because of the longer hours of darkness and less sun.
Common Symptoms of SAD
Symptoms of seasonal depression are consistent with other forms of depression. However, symptoms unique to SAD are cravings for carbohydrates, an increased appetite, excessive sleepiness, and weight gain.
Common symptoms begin to appear in the autumn and range from:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day.
- Losing an interest in activities you once enjoyed.
- Constant tiredness and having low energy.
- Feeling hopeless, worthless, and irritable.
- Feeling sluggish or agitated.
- Having difficulty concentrating.
- Experiencing difficulty in sleeping or sleeping too much.
- Carbohydrate cravings and weight gain.
- Thoughts of death or suicide.
What are the causes of SAD?
The exact causes of SAD remain unknown. However, there are several possibilities:
- The decrease in sunlight and longer hours of darkness can disrupt your circadian rhythm or biological clock, leading to feelings of depression.
- Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in Serotonin, the key hormone that stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness which may trigger depression.
- Melatonin is a sleep related hormone secreted by the pineal gland at night and is associated with control of the sleep–wake cycle. It’s thought that we produce more melatonin in the winter months due to increased hours of darkness. This can lead to higher levels of tiredness and lower mood.
Those more at risk from SAD
There are several key groups who are more at risk from seasonal depression:
- Women in their 20s-30s.
- Those with a family history of SAD may be more likely to suffer.
- Individuals with ongoing depression or bipolar disorder. Symptoms may worsen in the winter.
- Those living further from the equator. SAD appears to be more common among people who live far north or south of the equator due to decreased sunlight during the winter and longer days during the summer months.
Natural Remedies for SAD
Traditional treatment for seasonal depressive disorder utilises the use of phototherapy or bright light therapy, where white fluorescent lights are used to mimic sunlight. It replaces the sunshine that you miss during autumn and winter months and is effective in up to 85% of diagnosed cases.
Dawn simulators, also known as wake up lights, help to relieve SAD symptoms by gradually increasing the light on dark mornings, therefore helping your body gradually stop the production of melatonin.
They’re are alarm clocks with a unique twist. Rather than waking you up abruptly with loud buzzing or music, they simulate the rising sun by providing light that gradually increases in intensity over 30 minutes and can be accompanied by gentle nature sounds like rainfall or birdsong. Most users awake feeling more refreshed and find it easier to get out of bed.
Research has found that dawn simulators to be just as useful as a light therapy box for people suffering from mild SAD.
Additional research has found that dawn stimulators seem to increase athletic performance and enhance cognitive performance, as well as to lift one’s mood.
For those with SAD, getting out during the day as much as possible to take advantage of any sunlight is crucial. Try breaking up your workday with an early afternoon walk to soak up some vitamin D naturally.
Vitamin D deficiency
Those diagnosed with SAD are frequently found to have low levels of vitamin D.
Vitamin D is the sunshine vitamin. In the UK, we can get most of our vitamin D from sunlight exposure from around late March to the end of September. Our bodies store some of it, but as we go through the winter, we get depleted, and this has been linked to depression.
If you live in the UK during the winter, it’s likely you will need a Vitamin D boost.
The natural form of vitamin D your body makes form the sunlight is cholecalciferol and can be obtained from a D3 supplement.
Talk to your natural health provider or nutritionist for recommendations. If you are concerned, you can have a blood test to test your Vitamin D levels.
You can get some Vitamin D from your diet in the following ways:
- Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) found in some mushrooms
- Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) found in oily fish, fish liver oil, and egg yolks.
How diet can help with SAD
As always, we can turn to good foods to heal us.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Hippocrates
As I mentioned, SAD sufferers crave more starchy carbs and sweet treats, which can end up making you feeling worse.
Making slight changes to your diet will cause a significant difference in health and wellbeing, as well as to your mental state and mood.
Start with limiting your consumption of refined carbs and processed foods. Instead, choose complex carbs like whole grain varieties, such as whole grain pasta and bread, sweet potatoes. Include more fresh, whole fruits and vegetables, brown rice and lentils.
Keep your hormones in check and boost your serotonin levels by including more omega-3 fatty acids from oily, fatty fish like wild salmon, mackerel, and herring, as well as vegan options like flaxseed and hemp. Include lean proteins and plenty of leafy greens.
Additional foods linked to serotonin levels are those with high levels of tryptophan, such as turkey, chicken, bananas, nuts, peas, pumpkin and spinach.
Increase your exercise
Regular exercise is proven to help with traditional depression and winter depression.
Studies show that staying active increases the production of feel-good chemicals, such as serotonin, that help ease depressive feelings and even brain fog. Research also reports consistency and frequency of exercise offer the most positive effects.
Think of exercise as a long-term treatment, not a one-off fix. The key to consistency is to find something you enjoy that you’ll want to keep doing.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be useful for treating seasonal disorder. CBT provides a hands-on, practical approach to problem solving. The goal is to change negative patterns of thinking or behaviour to change the way someone feels.
The power of Journaling
Journaling can be a great tool for expressing our thoughts and feelings, and is known to have a positive effect on mood and ease other SAD symptoms.
The theory behind it and how it works is the subject for another article, but put simply, it brings thoughts and feelings to the surface, and gets them out of our heads and onto paper.
For many suffering with depression, journaling can help them take an active role by empowering them to do something to feel better. It’s a perfect activity to identify any negative self-talk so you can change it.
Use it as a space to be honest and free, and release whatever it is you are holding on to. Write regularly, and for as long as or as little as you like.
I hope this article has helped inform you of the ways in which we can minimise the impact of Seasonal Depression.
Maybe you identified some symptoms you have already seen in yourself.
If you know you are suffering from SAD please get in touch via the Living Well Hub, I have some programs which could help you.