Winter blues, seasonal depression, SAD syndrome… it’s all the same and it’s miserable if you suffer with it. It’s estimated that around 10% of the population suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I imagine that’s much higher in our nation with our damp weather and short days. It’s very much a ‘modern world’ problem, largely because around 80% of the population used to work outside, whilst now it’s closer to 10%.
If you’ve been suffering since October time, the good news is that we are now heading into spring and your symptoms should begin to imporve over the next few weeks as our days get longer and the sun starts breaking through the cloud cover.
Not sure if you suffer? There are lots of symptoms associated with SAD, but here are some of the most common ones:
A need for more sleep
Feeling tired during the day and restless at night
Lethargy and struggling to keep up with daily routines
Craving carbohydrates and comfort foods
Social anxiety and a need to be alone
Sadness or a feeling of general low mood with no apparent reason
Increased PMS (for women)
So what can you do if you struggle with SAD?
Well, the most obvious solution is light. There are SAD light boxes which can be useful, but they are also very expensive, and the free option is simply to get outside, every day, for at least 40 minutes to an hour, as early as possible. When we wake up and get out in the sunlight as soon as possible, our body sets us up with seratonin to keep us alert and happy.
During the winter months, when we want to lie in our warm, cosy beds a bit longer, the body produces an excess of melatonin, which makes us feel sleepy and tired, as well as increasing our risk of depression.
You will need to do light therapy for at least two weeks to start seeing improvements in your bio rhythms and experiencing better sleep, but it’s definitely worth it, and if you can build the habit it in now and keep it going through the autumn, you hopefully won’t be feeling this low again next year.
Getting out and about early also gives you a good dose of fresh air and some light exercise. Exercise is important for releasing endorphins and boosting seratonin levels. If you can’t get up early enough to fit in a walk before work, you could consider walking or cycling to work instead of driving to get some of the benefits.
Finally I recommend staying away from stimulants. Regardless of how tempting that coffee looks when you hit an afternoon slump, it won’t make you feel better in the long run. Sugar won’t make you happy, and alcohol doesn’t relax you for a good nights sleep. Using these artificial methods to creat the highs and lows you are looking for actually puts more stress on your body, reduces your capacity to produce seretonin, and increases inflammation which aggravates depression. They might help in the moment, but they create a vicious cycle of dependancy which means you need to consume more and more to get the same hit, leaving you unable to cope without them.
People often assume lack of vitamin D is the cause of their seasonal depression, but this is actually very unlikely. Whilst plenty of people are deficient in vitamin D, it takes a long time to get there, and at least 6 months to rebuild stores. It doesn’t respond fast enough for you to start feeling low in the winter and better in the summer. Whilst a vitamin D supplement may benefit your health in other ways over the long term, it’s unlikely to be the solution for SAD.