Do you hate the long winter evenings? Do you want to hibernate? Do you feel exhausted? Do you crave sunlight and carbohydrates?
When asked about the change of seasons from summer to winter in a recent poll, 77% people in the UK reported that their energy levels were negatively affected, and 71% reported a poorer mood.
You may have a touch of the winter blues or be suffering the more serious Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD, as it is often referred to, is a type of depression that has a seasonal pattern. Some people call it “winter depression” because the symptoms are more severe during the winter, and tend to improve through spring and summer.
What are the signs of SAD?
The symptoms are similar to depression and include:
- a persistent low mood or feeling down
- a loss of interest in normal everyday activities
- feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
- lacking energy and feeling sleepy, even during the day
- sleeping for longer than normal
- finding it hard to get up in the morning
- craving carbohydrates and gaining weight
- Lower immune system and vulnerability to infections
For some people, these symptoms can be quite mild and not last long. Others can find they have a severe and significant impact on their day-to-day activities.
What causes SAD?
SAD isn’t fully understood, but it’s linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter autumn and winter days. There are many more sufferers in northerly countries where the winter days are really short. It can also run in families.
It is thought that a lack of sunlight stops the hypothalamus in the brain working properly, which may affect the:
• melatonin – a hormone that makes you feel sleepy; SAD sufferers produce more than normal levels
• serotonin – a hormone that affects your mood, appetite and sleep; a lack of sunlight may lead to lower serotonin levels, which is linked to feelings of depression
• body’s internal clock – sunlight is an important factor in controlling when you wake up, so lower light levels may disrupt your body clock
What can you do if you feel SAD?
If your symptoms are severe you should visit your GP who will recommend the most suitable treatment programme for you. They may include:
• light therapy – where a special lamp called a light box is used to simulate exposure to sunlight
• talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy or counselling
• antidepressant medication which can also control the serotonin levels
Fortunately, most of can take a number of simple measures to adapt our lifestyle and improve our symptoms, including:
- get as much natural sunlight as possible – even weak winter sunshine can make a difference
- make your indoor environments as light and airy as possible – even sitting near windows will help
- take plenty of regular exercise, particularly outdoors and in daylight
- eat a healthy, balanced diet
Vitamin D could give you a boost
This summer the government, via Public Health England, published new recommendations that people should supplement their vitamin D intake to protect bone and muscle health. UK’s winters means one in five of us have insufficient levels of vitamin D. With summers not always as sunny as we would wish and more of us trying to stay out of direct sun, it is thought that we could all do with a top up of the ‘sunshine’ vitamin. It is recommended that we take 10 micrograms a day during autumn and winter to ensure our bones, teeth and muscles stay healthy.
There is much debate on how necessary the supplement is, so you may prefer to boost your diet in the foods containing vitamin D; which includes oily fish, red meat, liver, egg yolks and fortified breakfast cereals.