Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a version of depression that comes and goes with the changing of the seasons from summer into autumn/winter. As such, SAD is often referred to as a “winter depression” due to its prevalence during this timeframe each year.
This condition historically has affected 3 in every 100 people at some point during their lifetime. This can be extremely debilitating and can manifest in a range of symptoms ranging from mild lethargy to crippling depression.
Symptoms usually begin in late autumn as the days shorten and the light dwindles. Symptoms often persist right through to late February/March until the days lengthen enough with the arrival of the new season. The years where we have significantly cold, bleak weather in the spring months means the symptoms of this syndrome can extend much later into the year, finally abating around May time.
Considering this information around the level of light you are exposed to directly impacting this syndrome, it probably comes as no surprise that incidences of SAD are much higher in the North or South Pole areas. However because many of us living in more moderate climates rarely spend time outdoors, our light exposure is mostly from light bulbs and fluorescent strips. As such, there has been a marked increase of sufferers from this condition over recent years.
SAD is yet another syndrome that is directly related to living in the developed world. We do not have to go that far back in the history book to find a time in which 75% of people used to work outdoors in natural light as opposed to only 10% now.
People living in cities are even more likely to suffer from this syndrome and the symptoms tend to be more severe due to the majority of their days being spent moving from home to transport, the office and back again. Of course, now we have a new category to add to this group which is the work from home (WFH) group. Since March 2020 we have had over 40% of our workforce move into a WFH scenario as we went into our first and at the time, novel, lockdown. If you remember initially, in the UK at least, we were encouraged to get outside for our once-daily bout of exercise. This change of circumstance coincided with several months of glorious sunshine meaning even those living in darker, closed-in spaces could still get a good stint of sunlight every day when they stepped outside the front door!
This set-up was encouraged once again when we went into our subsequent lockdown(s), however, this time it coincided with the winter months meaning access to natural light was far more limited.
It is yet to be discovered through studies if the WFH set-up directly contributes towards an increased level of SAD sufferers but I would hazard a guess that there will be some very compelling evidence once this has been researched further.
So, I have given you a huge amount of information surrounding this topic but it is critical you are aware of the symptoms to look out for in relation to SAD:
- Low energy levels
- Feeling demotivated
- Restless sleep with the need to sleep more during the day
- Feeling anxious and like you’re unable to deal with the day-to-day
- Irritability with others and removing yourself from the social situations
- Feeling sad, gloomy and despondent which cannot be related back to a specific cause
- Overarching depression
- Increased appetite for high sugar foods resulting in weight gain
This all seems like a rather daunting prospect, however, please do not worry as there are several proven methods of treating this syndrome effectively as detailed below:
- Light Therapy
Humans have two key neurotransmitters, melatonin and serotonin, that control energy levels. Increases in melatonin levels can make you feel sleepy whilst serotonin is produced in the daytime to keep you awake. When you wake up in the daylight, your serotonin levels naturally rise, keeping you focused and alert. In the dark winter months, when you receive little to no light exposure on a daily basis, the body produces excess levels of melatonin making us sleepy and heightening our risk of low mood or depression.
One of the best-proven SAD treatment strategies is the use of lightboxes that mimic the light levels that you get in the summer throughout the day. This enables the body to produce more serotonin and as such make you feel more upbeat and positive. SAD sufferers report great improvements in a relatively short period of use (avg 1-2 weeks). Lightboxes emit different strengths of light and the severity of the condition will dictate the level of light required!
Lightboxes are extremely practical and easy to use as they can be placed on a desk whilst you’re working, for example, enabling you to get the right level of light exposure throughout the day. That said, whilst this is an extremely effective treatment and medically approved lightboxes are widely available on the market, it is sadly an expensive method of overcoming this disorder and as such not accessible to all SAD sufferers.
Exercise is a vital restorative process regardless of your quality of health (I’ve talked before around varying intensities being suitable for different health conditions) but is particularly useful in times of low mood as it assists with the release of those good old endorphins! It is far healthier to exercise outside rather than in a gym for a number of reasons such as access to air that hasn’t been recirculated and the ability to reconnect with nature. Also, it gives you direct access to natural light meaning you have a better chance of restoring your circadian rhythms, giving you better control over your physical, mental and behavioural changes over each 24 hour period. Naturally, this enables you to tackle SAD head-on as if you’re feeling energised by endorphins you have a better chance of keeping negative feelings and low mood at bay!
Please feel free to check out one of my more recent blogs Exercise – the best tool for impacting your biological age for some additional inspiration!
3. Ditch the Stimulants
There’s no arguing it – stimulants are drugs that mess up our systems in numerous ways. As soon as the weather begins to get cold, we suddenly become more attracted to things like coffee to ‘wake us up’, chocolate to ‘keep us happy’ and then post all that stimulation, we turn to wine to ‘help us relax’ in the evenings.
I have picked out ‘wake us up’, ‘keep us happy’ and ‘help us relax’ as whilst initially caffeinated products, junk food and alcohol will produce all of these states – it is always short-lived, meaning we crave more of each sending us into a cycle of requirement and satisfaction. It also leads to a state of lethargy meaning we are less likely to hit our daily exercise quota!
The use of these socially acceptable drugs instils a perpetual state of energy swings which lead to weight gain, depression, hormonal imbalance and more.
I suggest substituting these stimulants with more natural, nutrient-rich whole foods that your body can make sustainable energy from – and which will carry you happily through your day ensuring you have the get-up-and-go to step outside for some exercise and gain access to natural light!
4. Get a Routine
One of the biggest issues with any form of depression, including SAD, is that we begin to feel completely overwhelmed and it seems as though we can’t cope with the demands of our day-to-day. Once you have begun to use the strategies outlined above, you’ll begin to feel a bit more in control and now is the time to gradually set manageable goals.
For example, if you’ve decided to eat more healthily, you can start to research recipes online that inspire you. Commit to preparing one healthy dish per day – and stick to it. A routine like this is paramount in helping to eradicate depressive thoughts and feelings.
Try to make your goals support your wellbeing. Perhaps you could consider committing to mindfulness meditation (proven to help alleviate depression). I previously wrote a blog, Practicing compassion towards ourselves lowers biological age, which could help you get to grips with the fundamentals of this practice.
I most caution, however, please do go easy on yourself. You need to set yourself a target but don’t overshoot or set unrealistic expectations. If you do this, you will put too much pressure on yourself and potentially have to start back at square one!
5. Complementary Therapies
To support your mission to overcome SAD, it is always great to have a helping hand through someone such as a Complementary Medical Practitioner. Treatments such as homoeopathy, acupuncture, cognitive behavioural therapy, nutrition rebalancing, massage and many, many more have been shown within studies and testimonials of patients to really help with overcoming SAD and other forms of depression.
This is most likely due to the fact that these treatments are designed to tap into your physical systems, calming your body and as such clearing your mind, giving you the room to feel able to overcome the obstacles you face.
You’ll find a huge number of excellent and diversely skilled practitioners on The Complementary Medical Association’s website: The-CMA.org.uk, meaning you are not short of choice in how you wish to tackle SAD.
I really hope this article has helped shed some light on a potential option for explaining low mood, sadness and lack of get-up-and-go throughout the winter months.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me!
All my love,
JayneyTags: depression, sad, seasonal affective disorder, winter