It’s that time of year when it gets dark early and the days seem shorter – and, despite it being party season, not everyone is feeling on top of the world
Everywhere is full of Christmas cheer, but for around two million people in the UK this time of the year is anything but merry. That’s the estimated number who genuinely suffer from the winter blues, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. It’s sometimes known as ‘winter depression’ because the symptoms are usually more apparent and severe when the days are shorter. The nature and severity of SAD varies from person to person. For some, it may be mild while for others it can be severe and have a significant impact on their day-to-day life.
• Persistent low mood.
• 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.
• Feeling stressed, anxious or tearful.
• Difficulty concentrating.
• Becoming less sociable.
• Decreased sex drive.
The exact cause of SAD is not fully understood, but it’s often linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter autumn and winter days. The main theory is that a lack of sunlight might stop a part of the brain called the hypothalamus working properly.
This 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.
• 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.
• The body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) – your body uses sunlight to time various important functions, such as when you wake up, so lower light levels during the winter may disrupt your body clock and lead to symptoms of SAD.
• It’s also possible that some people are more vulnerable to SAD as a result of their genes, as some cases appear to run in families.
A number of treatments are available for SAD, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and anti-depressants. Some people with SAD find that light therapy can help improve their mood considerably. This involves sitting by a special lamp called a light box, usually for around 30 minutes to an hour each morning. They produce a very bright light. The intensity of the light is measured in lux – the higher lux, the brighter the light.
The light produced by the light box simulates the sunlight that’s missing during the darker winter months. It’s thought the light may improve SAD by encouraging your brain to reduce the production of melatonin (the hormone that makes you sleepy) and increase the production of serotonin (the hormone that affects your mood).
Some things you can do to help improve your symptoms:
• Get outside and try to get as much natural sunlight as possible – even a brief lunchtime walk can be beneficial.
• Make your work and home environments as light and airy as possible.
• Sit near windows when you’re indoors.
• Try to keep warm. Being cold makes you more depressed and staying warm can reduce the winter blues by half.
• Inject bright colours into your home or improve the lighting.
• Take plenty of regular exercise, particularly outdoors and in daylight.
• Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Balance your craving for carbohydrates, such as pasta and potatoes, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
• If possible, avoid stressful situations and take steps to manage stress.
• It can also be helpful to talk to your family and friends about SAD so they understand how your mood changes during the winter. This can help them to support you more effectively.