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Health & Wellbeing / Claire Blackmore

The No BS Ways To Tackle Seasonal Affective Disorder

Whether you have a touch of the winter blues, or just that your sofa slothing is off the scale, there’s no doubt that low energy and the darker, colder days are intrinsically linked – we’re all likely to feel more meh as autumn slides into winter and we could all probably benefit from a wellbeing boost rn.

But when does an occasional blah mood become a mental health issue that we should be concerned about – something that can’t be shifted by an uplifting scented candle, a soak in the bath or an early night (however restorative these things may be)?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, a.k.a SAD, is a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern – it’s often called “winter depression”. Sure, we all have our good days and bad days, but the symptoms of SAD go beyond feeling a bit gloomy, or moody. If you’ve noticed any of the following symptoms, and have recognised that they tend to arrive in autumn/winter and then disappear in the spring/summer, you may well be a sufferer. SAD symptoms include…

  • A very low mood that persists all day, for most days
  • Losing interest in normal everyday activities and the things you enjoy
  • Feeling irritable, agitated and anxious
  • Having feelings of guilt, hopelessness and worthlessness
  • Lacking energy and feeling sluggish
  • Having problems sleeping and finding it difficult to wake up in the morning
  • Limited concentration
  • Craving carbohydrates, stodgy food and gaining weight
  • A loss of interest in sex

So what’s the cause?

In a nutshell, SAD symptoms are linked to the lack of natural light available during the shorter days in autumn and winter, causing an important part of the brain called the hypothalamus to stop working as it should. The hypothalamus governs the production of melatonin – which makes us sleepy, and serotonin – which affects our mood and appetite. Sunlight is also crucial for the correct functioning of our internal body clock (when we wake and when we feel tired), and our natural sleeping rhythms can get disrupted without it, throwing us out of sorts. It is also thought that more women suffer with the symptoms than men, and in some cases it can be genetic, meaning SAD has a tendency to run in families.

What can help?

In the same way that you would approach any other illness, it’s important to chat to your GP about how you are feeling – SAD is a form of depression and should be taken seriously. If your symptoms are severe, your doctor may recommend a course of antidepressants of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or for milder SAD, some lifestyle changes might be suggested so that you can self-manage your symptoms.

Here are some of the things that can help if you’re suffering from a bout of SAD.

See the light

Light therapy has been known to help SAD because exposure to bright, artificial light replicates natural sunlight and encourages the body to produce the natural chemicals and hormones needed to boost your mood. This however is not a simple as sitting underneath the strip lighting in your kitchen – light boxes are specifically made to omit prescribed levels of light that are as close to natural daylight as possible. You might need to try several devices to see what works for you and although you’ll need to buy the light box yourself (they’re not available on the NHS), your doctor can advise you on how and when to use it effectively. Usually, 30 minutes to an hour of exposure a day is recommended to lift the symptoms of SAD. You don’t need to sit staring into the light either, to work properly it just needs to be on and close by on a surface – as long your head and body are angled towards the light, you can have breakfast, read or work on a laptop as usual.

Get outdoors

As much as you want to hibernate from the world if you’re feeling low, making sure you get outside during daylight hours every day (yes, every single day) can be a game changer if you’re suffering from SAD. If you find it difficult to be outdoors mid-week when you leave and return from work in the dark, use your lunch break to take a walk to get a 20-30 minute fix of natural light, or work as near to a window as possible when in the office.

Move your body

We all know that working out helps your to body release endorphins – those feel-good chemicals that can protect against low moods and anxiety – so 30-60 minutes of daily exercise is essential if you suffer from winter depression as it can provide the immediate natural mood boost you need. Other benefits of physical activity for SAD suffers include helping to regulate sleep patterns and adding structure to the day – if possible, do your workouts outdoors in the winter.

Eat the correct mood-foods

If you’re suffering from SAD, it’s likely you’ll be craving sugary foods or simple, carbohydrates such as pasta and white bread, causing lethargy and up-and-down energy levels. Packing your plate with plenty of fresh vegetables and adding foods to your diet that are rich in omega-3-fats, such as oily fish, walnuts and flaxseeds can help lift your mood, and choosing foods such as oatmeal, whole grain bread, brown rice, and bananas can boost your feel-good serotonin levels without the subsequent sugar crash.

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