Have you ever noticed you’re feeling a little down from autumn to spring, when the nights get darker and the cold winter months are upon us? I know I have, but I never really understood why that was. I would describe myself as ‘not a winter person’, but it always felt like more than that.
As my usual winter blues have hit me hard this year, Seasonal Affective Disorder has been brought to my attention. The more I learnt about this incredibly interesting disorder, it gave my symptoms more meaning, helped me understand why I was feeling this way, and provided the comfort of knowing that I am not alone.
What Is SAD?
The majority of people suffer in the winter months, from autumn to spring, but SAD can actually occur any time of year, depending on the individual who is affected. In cases of SAD, full remission is expected after the season has passed, which is typically around spring time, for those who experience SAD in the winter.
The condition is most likely to affect younger people, females, and people who live in more northern latitudes, though it can affect anyone.
Symptoms of SAD may include:
- A general low mood.
- Lack of energy.
- Change in appetite.
- Weight gain.
- Hypersensitivity to negative situations.
- A sense of worthlessness.
- Lack of enjoyment in activities you may usually enjoy.
- Finding it hard to concentrate.
- In severe occurrences: Thoughts of suicide.
Why Does SAD Occur?
The most likely causes of SAD relate to:
- Circadian Rhythm.
- Melatonin levels.
- Lack of serotonin.
Circadian Rhythm and Melatonin Levels
Your Circadian Rhythm is, simply put, your body’s natural internal clock. Its purpose is to keep your body in tune with the rising and setting of the sun. The lack of natural light available in the winter months can interrupt this natural rhythm.
The Science-y Bit
At the base of the brain is a region named the hypothalamus. Within the hypothalamus are a group of neutrons called suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The neutrons in the SCN receive information about light from the optic nerve, and use that information to control the Circadian Rhythm. The SCN then relays that information to the pineal gland.
When there’s a lack of light, the pineal gland releases a hormone named melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone which helps you go to sleep, by lowering your temperature and heart rate. When the optic nerve senses light, the same process takes place, and the pineal gland stops releasing melatonin, in turn raising your temperature and heart rate, and keeping you awake.
The winter months are naturally darker, which can cause your body release too much melatonin. In turn this can cause fatigue and a lack of energy.
Lack of Serotonin
Serotonin is a monoamine neurotransmitter, which affects our mood. Essentially, the more serotonin our bodies produce, the easier we are able to maintain a ‘happier’ mood. If serotonin levels are low, this can cause our mood to decrease, and we may feel less happy than we usually would.
The Science-y Bit
Serotonin can play a part in causing SAD since serotonin production and release is encouraged via Vitamin D.
As humans, we gain a lot of our Vitamin D from sunlight. The late sunrises and early sunsets in winter mean less opportunity for our bodies to be exposed to Vitamin D, which can cause us to absorb less, and, therefore, produce less serotonin. A lack of this important monoamine neurotransmitter can leave us feeling low in mood.
To diagnose an individual with Seasonal Affective Disorder, the individual must have displayed symptoms of seasonal depression in the same time period for the last two years. It is important to monitor and note your own mental health in order to be able to provide appropriate evidence and information for your doctor.
If you feel you are suffering with SAD, do not hesitate to contact your GP, but be aware that you may not receive a diagnosis straightaway.
Ways to Treat SAD
SAD can be treated in a number of ways, including:
- Some sufferers of SAD find that light therapy can considerably improve their mood. Light boxes are used to simulate natural sunlight, meaning less melatonin and more serotonin is produced, helping to keep you feeling more awake and positive.
The idea is, simply, that the individual sits by the light box for around 30 minutes to an hour each morning, giving their body time to absorb some of the light.
- Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are most commonly used to treat SAD. These are antidepressants which help increase the level of serotonin produced in the brain, lifting the individual’s mood.
- Both Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and counselling are often used to treat SAD.
How I Combat Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
There are some things we do have control over, which I find help to combat my symptoms of SAD. These include:
Try to get as much natural light as possible
During the winter months it’s easy to hide away indoors. It’s cold, dark and dreary, but try to find reasons to get outside in the little bit of sunshine we have. I work in an office, so see little to no natural light day to day, but I will take a walk outside at least twice during my working day to stretch my legs and absorb what sunlight is on offer.
Take Vitamin D tablets
Those serotonin levels can use all the help they can get, so I take a daily Vitamin D tablet to help boost my Vitamin D intake for the day.
Raising your heart rate and getting blood flowing is a great way to keep you fit, healthy, alert and awake. I find going for a run can really help put me in a better mood.
Make plans and be sociable
Force yourself to make plans with friends and family. Even if you’re not feeling up to it, you’ll appreciate the company when you’re there, and it’ll help keep your mind busy. Who knows, a friend or family member may also be suffering with symptoms of SAD. Your invite could be just what they need to boost their mood, too. I try and ensure I have at least one ‘plan’ a week.
Don’t sit and dwell on your negative mood, or, worse, sleep the days away. Find something to keep you busy. Writing this article is a great example of the kind of things I do to keep myself busy.
Try to keep things clean and tidy
Sometimes you don’t feel up to cleaning your house from top to bottom, and that’s okay, but something as little as washing your pots the night before instead of leaving them for the morning can really help keep things in order and de-clutter your mind. I always make my bed in the morning, even if I don’t have time for anything else.
Maintaining a healthy diet can do wonders for your physical and mental health. Unhealthy foods, high in fat and carbohydrates, can leave you feeling even more lethargic in the winter months. I try to keep soups, salads and smoothies a constant part of my diet, with a variety of healthy snacks at hand for when I’m feeling peckish.
Speak to others
If you are feeling symptoms of SAD, don’t isolate yourself. Confide in others about your symptoms and work together to overcome them. Whether that’s speaking to a GP or therapist to receive a diagnosis, or just being open and honest with friends and family about how you’re feeling, you don’t need to carry this burden alone.
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