Are you suffering from SAD this winter?
Seasonal Affective Disorder, better known as SAD, is a surprisingly common condition which affects around 2 million people in the UK. This type of seasonal depression can leave you feeling under the weather, quite literally, and it can be difficult to diagnose. We thought we'd look at what causes SAD, how to know if you're suffering from it and the best ways to treat it and prevent it recurring. Because nobody wants to feel depressed when it's already cold and dark outside!
What is SAD?
SAD is a type of seasonal depression that usually occurs during the winter months. If you're affected by SAD, you'll usually notice symptoms similar to that of depression – lack of interest in life, low mood and possibly spending more time than usual sleeping. Symptoms most commonly begin during the autumn, when the days start to get shorter and we get less sunlight – this is why it's important to get outside for a run and soak up some vitamin D! Getting plenty of light can also help to regulate your sleep patterns. For most, SAD symptoms are worst in December, January and February.
What causes SAD?
Unfortunately, we still don't know exactly what causes SAD. It's thought that reduced levels of sunlight due to shorter days could be a trigger, because light has a role to play in keeping our brains balanced. Sunlight affects chemicals in the brain and our body's hormones – many experts believe that light stimulates the hypothalamus. This part of the brain is responsible for controlling your appetite (those pesky cravings for something sweet!), your mood and sleep. So it makes sense that lack of sunlight could impact the way you feel.
The hypothalamus stops working properly without enough light, which could mean your body produces less melatonin (responsible for regulating your body clock) and serotonin (responsible for regulating happiness). This can also affect your internal clock, meaning you'll feel more tired and possibly spend more time sleeping or napping. A drop in serotonin levels (often known as the 'happiness' hormone) can trigger depression or low mood (1).
Who is affected by SAD?
We already know that SAD affects two million people in the UK, but it seems women are three times as likely as men to be affected. Young people aged between 18 to 30 are more at risk of developing SAD than older adults, and if you have a family history of depression or SAD, you're more likely to experience the symptoms yourself. If you already suffer from depression, symptoms could get worse with the seasons.
Did you know that SAD is found more commonly in those who live farthest from the equator (either north or south)? This could be because of reduced sunlight levels in the autumn and winter months.
Do you have SAD?
SAD can be difficult to diagnose as the symptoms are similar to many types of depression, but if you don't usually experience depression, or if you can't figure out why you are feeling so low, it might be worth seeing your GP. Depression can impact your work, social life and relationships, so it is important to get help.
Bear in mind that the following can impact your mood:
It could be that dietary changes, lack of sleep or stress are responsible for how you are feeling. Your GP can assess your mental health and look at your symptoms and their severity, as well as examining seasonal changes in your behaviour. Because SAD usually only strikes during the winter months, it can be hard to diagnose, and it may be a good idea to keep a 'mood diary' over the course of a year or two, which allows you to document your mood, which could indicate a seasonal link.
How is SAD treated?
If you are suffering from mild symptoms and have not yet received a diagnosis of SAD, it can be helpful to try some natural home remedies to boost your mood and help you relax. Taking a bath with a good book, or meditating are great ways to relax, or why not book an aromatherapy massage? Essential oils such as lavender can help to promote feelings of relaxation and well-being. Looking after yourself by getting at least eight hours of sleep a night, eating a healthy diet packed with fruit, vegetables, protein and carbohydrates and getting plenty of exercise can also help to boost your mood and ensures you feel more balanced. Try yoga or Pilates as a way to reconnect with yourself whilst toning and strengthening your body.
If your symptoms are seriously impacting your life, your GP may suggest cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or counselling, which can help you to talk about your worries. In severe cases, antidepressants are sometimes used, but there is limited evidence to suggest they are an effective way to treat SAD (2). It's thought to be best to start taking prescribed antidepressants at the start of the winter season, before symptoms appear.
Light therapy is often suggested as a natural way to treat symptoms of SAD in the short term, and it involves sitting in front of (or under) a very bright light. You'll need to purchase a light box specifically designed for treatment of SAD, and you can get a list of recommended manufacturers from the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association. The light simulates sunlight and encourages your body to produce more serotonin and melatonin. Whilst there is mixed evidence on the effectiveness of light therapy, the conclusion is that is can provide short-term relief from the symptoms of SAD – just make sure you don't use it at night as it can make it hard to drift off to sleep!
Feeling low is serious – it can impact on every aspect of your life, so if you have been experiencing symptoms of depression or feeling unusually negative for more than a couple of weeks, it might be time to make some changes to your lifestyle and diet, or see your GP – it could be SAD.
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