For many people, the dark mornings and early nights of winter bring with them a return of seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD. SAD is believed to affect 3% of the population, and is thought to be up to three times more common in women. It is linked to a reduced exposure to sunlight during the winter months, especially in northern latitudes, and can have profound effects on mental health. SAD often co-exists with other mental health issues.
What are the common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?
Symptoms experienced by many sufferers of SAD include:
- a persistent low mood
- lack of interest in and enthusiasm for daily activities
- excess sleeping
- trouble getting up in the morning
- cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods
- weight gain
- feelings of despair
- low energy
Many people who suffer from SAD liken it to having a strong desire to hibernate through winter.
What causes seasonal affective disorder?
As we have mentioned, the key cause is the lack of sunlight in the winter months. This is believed to have a direct effect on the hypothalamus, the region in the brain that helps keep everything in balance, including sleep, emotions and appetite. Three key areas that are affected are:
1. Melatonin production – this is a sleep hormone that is linked to daylight hours. The lack of sunlight causes the hypothalamus to trigger increased secretion of melatonin which in turn increases feelings of sleepiness and lethargy.
2. Serotonin production – the hormone that is linked to feeling happy and has a strong influence on appetite and mood. Levels of serotonin are seen to fall with a lack of sunlight.
3. Circadian rhythm – our internal body clock is disturbed by the altered sunlight. As anyone knows who has to get up early each day, it is much harder to do so when it’s still dark outside.
What is the best treatment for seasonal affective disorder?
It is important to emphasise that anyone feeling very low or depressed should consult their GP immediately. If you recognise these symptoms in someone else, please talk to them and advise them to seek help. A GP may prescribe anti-depressant medication such as SSRIs.
For anyone displaying mild symptoms, increasing exposure to bright daylight is a key step in addressing the symptoms. This could be by going for a daily walk when the sun is shining, or simply sitting in the garden, park or by a large window when it’s bright outside.
On days when the sun barely makes an appearance, a light box can be helpful. These emit a bright light, but without any UV rays, and are recommended to be used for 30-60 minutes early in the morning, to simulate the effects of bright daylight.
Other lifestyle measures can include:
Talking to others: the old adage ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ is very often true. Talking to your friends and family about how you are feeling can often help.
Not only does it provide an outlet for unwanted feelings, but often we discover that others are feeling much the same way, which helps to lessen the sensation of dealing with something alone.
Talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy have also been shown to have positive effects on SAD.
Eat a nutrient-rich diet: poor mental health has been linked to a poor diet. Ensuring good quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, oily fish and other healthy fats can help to feed the brain and provide the nutrients it needs to function optimally.
The amino acid tryptophan is needed for the production of serotonin, so ensuring good amounts of this through fish, poultry, red meats and eggs could help boost levels of the hormone.
Supplementing the diet with relevant nutrients may also help support brain health, mood and wellbeing in the short term.
Activity: as mentioned above, a daily walk at the brightest time of the day can help expose the brain to any available sunlight. In addition, taking regular exercise has been shown to increase feelings of good mood, reduce anxiety and improve self-esteem.
Make sure you choose to do a form of activity that you love, you’re much more likely to stick to it regularly.
Find out more about seasonal affective disorder:
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