Are you a fellow SAD sufferer? Don’t let the winter blues get you down – follow these doctors’ tips on fighting seasonal affective disorder…
What is SAD?
Did you know that the NHS estimates 1 in 5 people in the UK suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – a form of seasonal depression that hits people during the winter months? I’m one of this unlucky group and over the years have built myself a toolkit to manage the symptoms of SAD, which for me usually start to make an appearance around November each year.
SAD is common not only in the UK but also across many countries north of the equator. Symptoms can begin when the days begin to shorten – as early as September. Most people find their SAD symptoms are worst in December, January and February and they start to begin to feel better as the days get longer towards spring.
I’ve got some good tricks that have helped me manage my SAD, which, as a travel blogger unsurprisingly includes flying away to get some winter sun. However, I’m no medical expert. Therefore I went and spoke with several doctors and pharmacists to put together this informed, (and hopefully) helpful guide to seasonal affective disorder and how to fight it.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
Unsure if you’re suffering from SAD? Well it’s more than just a dip in mood. If you persistently feel low or sad, are irritable, have problems with sleep, a lack of energy, change in appetite – including a craving for sweets and carbs, have difficulty concentrating, or don’t want to go out then you might well be a sufferer.
“A drop in mood isn’t the only sign of SAD. You may also be less active than normal and find you don’t have much energy. You may have problems sleeping, or feel the need to sleep more than usual.
Anxiety, panic attacks, stress, poor appetite, overeating, frequent colds and loss of sex drive are all symptoms too. But it’s not all doom and gloom as there are things you can do to boost your mood,” says Pareena Patel, from Lloyds Pharmacy.
It’s also important to consider there are different levels of SAD. Milder symptoms are often known as the ‘winter blues’, but if you find self management of your symptoms isn’t helping then treatment for more severe cases of SAD is available from GPs.
It’s always worth going to your doctor to discuss though, as it’s important to ensure that it’s definitely SAD and not ‘classic’ depression.
What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Although the exact cause for SAD isn’t known, unsurprisingly many doctors believe it’s triggered by the reduced level of sunlight these countries receive during winter.
“The reduced levels of sunlight affect the way a part of the brain, called the hypothalamus works,” explains Dr Jane Leonard, a GP at the Third Place Soho.
“The hypothalamus has many important functions; one of those functions involves linking to the nervous system to the endocrine system which is responsible for hormone production.
“In the case of SAD, the brain produces increased levels of melatonin, which is the hormone that controls our sleep and wake cycles. It is these increased levels that results in tiredness and fatigue which are the key symptoms of SAD.
“At the same time, reduced levels of sunlight cause a reduction in the production of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin affects our mood, appetite and sleep. I’s the low levels of serotonin in the brain result in the ‘biological’ symptoms of classical depression, such as poor sleep, appetite changes, low mood, sadness and lethargy.”
Treatments for SAD
Sounds pretty depressing, huh? Well SAD isn’t something you just have to sit and suffer through. There are lots of different treatments you can try in order to manage your symptoms. Many of which are small changes in lifestyle that can provide significant results.
Here are the tips the health experts recommend…
Get outside and get active
Natural light can make a huge difference to symptoms of SAD so be sure to drag yourself outside for a lunchtime walk whenever possible.
Physical activity also helps to boost your mood. You don’t have to suddenly become a fitness fanatic, but just by being a bit more active in your everyday life you could help lift yourself a little.
“Exercise releases natural endorphins,” says Dr Leonard. “This gives a natural elevation in mood, hence why exercise is a well-recognised beneficial lifestyle choice in patients with depression. Opting to exercise outside also will optimise your sunlight exposure.”
You may just want to stay home and hibernate but it’s important to spend quality time with friends and family when suffering from the winter blues, as they can really help lift your mood.
Having plans also gives you things to look forward to, another helpful tool in managing SAD.
“Try to resist any cravings you may be having for stodgy foods by making sure your diet contains heaps of healthy fruit and vegetables,” advises pharmacist Patel.
Many experts believe that what you eat can make a real difference to your mood – especially in winter. Particularly important are food that contain the amino acid tryptophan, which turns into serotonin in the brain. Foods rich in this include banana, fish, nuts, pulses, avocado, cheese, eggs and turkey.
Although amazing, comfort food is likely to be high in processed sugars, which raise blood sugar, flood you with insulin and then leave you feeling low.
Docs also recommend keeping an eye on your caffeine intake as this suppresses serotonin (something I didn’t know!).
Heard of a SAD lamp? Well that’s light therapy.
“This uses a lightbox to simulate sunlight and make up for some of the reduced exposure to light in the winter,” explains Dr Abby Hyams, a MedicSpot GP.
SAD lights produce very bright light – the latest emit an intensity of around 10,000 lux. To compare, a bright summer day can reach 100,000 lux. By sitting infront of a SAD lamp for just half hour to an hour each day you can start feeling a little better after just a few days.
It’s become quite a well-know, and popular way to treat SAD and one I recommend to my friends and family.
I have a LitePod Compact SAD Light Box in my office with me, which I turn on for an hour or two each winter morning. I’m also a big fan of Philips’ Light Therapy range because, as a technology journalist, I know how much research went into the development of these devices.
As many SAD disorder sufferers struggle to get up easily in the morning, doctors also recommend a wake-up light that mimics sunrise to help you wake up more naturally.
I love mine, which is a Philips Wake-Up Light Alarm Clock , and I think it really helped make a difference to how I felt first thing in the morning. These are two of my biggest ways of treating the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.
Get some winter sun
Another form of light therapy? Actually sitting in the sun! That’s not really an option when you’re based in Northern Europe during winter, so a lot of people jump on a plane and head to warmer climes.
Getting a good dose of winter sun can really help you get through those dark months and it’s something I highly recommend.
I usually head off on a sunny holiday in November to push back my symptoms, but have been considering moving that back to after Christmas, as those last few months of winter always feel like the hardest to me.
Winter holidays are getting more and more popular. Although heading to snowy winter wonderlands can also lift your mood (just think of all that sunlight bouncing off that crisp, white snow) warming your bones on a tropical beach can’t be beaten.
So, if you’re looking for some winter sun be sure to visit our blog over the next few weeks as I’m currently writing a post of the best destinations!
Get help for SAD
If you feel you’re suffering from SAD it’s important that you do so see a doctor to ensure you get the right diagnosis and support.
As I mentioned earlier, people with really severe SAD can be offered other treatments by GPS, including antidepressants called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
Counselling, and talking therapies such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) are also often recommended.
“CBT involves reflecting on how certain thoughts results in behaviours and help you to develop strategies to help manage your thoughts and feelings in certain situations,” explains Dr Leonard.
Please remember that however low you’re feeling there is help out there. Whether you have SAD or potentially ‘full blown’ depression, there’s support available. Book at appointment at your GP, call the mental health charity Mind (0300 123 3393) or if you’re feeling at your worst, don’t be afraid to ring the Samaritans (116 123).
As someone who’s dealt with several bouts of depression as an adult I know how hopeless things can feel. But you don’t have to suffer alone. Call a friend, call a stranger. Your depression, whatever kind it may be, does not define who you are and doesn’t have to rule your life.
I hope that whatever type of depression you’re suffering from you’ve found something useful in this post that will help you ‘beat the blues’. And if you’re reading this and have any tips of your own, or stories to share, please do comment below!
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