Wave Goodbye to Seasonal Affective Disorder
Do you dread the long dark evenings? Is it a struggle to crawl out of bed in the darkness of winter mornings? If so, you’re not alone, because an estimated one in three people in the UK suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, appropriately known as SAD.
Read on for some practical tips to avoid the winter blues without having to wait for summer.
What is SAD?
As the light of summer fades into autumn, for SAD sufferers low mood follows close behind.
SAD is a type of depression, and it’s not simply about feeling down or miserable. You may have problems dropping off to sleep or you might feel like sleeping all the time. You’ll probably feel tired, find you’re forgetting things and can’t concentrate. You may lose your appetite or want to binge on sugar and carbs. Often sufferers find it difficult to motivate themselves to do anything, feeling lonely and alienated from others.
Typically, symptoms improve when the weather brightens up in the spring. Even though symptoms come and go with the seasons, they can be severe enough to seriously affect quality of life.
SAD can affect anyone, even those without any history of depression, although more women suffer than men.
Let There be Light
People living in the northern hemisphere are far more likely to suffer from SAD than those close to the equator who don’t have the long dark winter evenings.
Although scientists don’t fully understand exactly what causes SAD, it’s believed to be down to how light influences brain chemicals.
- Serotonin and Low Mood
The brain chemical serotonin affects mood, appetite and sleep. Serotonin is often low in depression, and it’s also involved in digestion.
Light-sensitive cells in your eyes tell your brain to produce serotonin. Scientists have discovered the amount of sunlight you’re exposed to is closely connected with the amount of serotonin produced by your brain.
- Melatonin and Sleep
Part of your brain called the pineal gland can sense light and produces a different brain chemical, melatonin. Its role is to regulate your sleep/wake cycle. Light suppresses melatonin production, and as it becomes darker in the evening, melatonin production increases.
Darker evenings mean more melatonin, so you’ll feel sleepier and your body clock will be disrupted.
However, the precise relationship between SAD and your sleep hormone isn’t clear, because some sufferers produce too little melatonin at night and too much during the daytime, disrupting sleep cycles.
Practical Suggestions for Combatting SAD
- Simulated Sunshine
Humans have evolved to be exposed to sunlight, but nowadays we mostly live indoors, shielded from natural daylight.
Spend some time outside in natural daylight if you can, but this may not be possible, especially this year. Consider investing in a full spectrum lightbox emitting light with the full range of light wavelengths, just like sunlight. It’s best to use your lightbox first thing in the morning for around half an hour.
In research, up to 80% of SAD sufferers benefitted from light therapy after only a few days.
Science has consistently found exercise beneficial for reducing depression, and SAD is no exception. Exercising outdoors is especially helpful because even if the sun isn’t out you’ll be getting some natural light.
- Nurture a Healthy Sleep Pattern
To regulate melatonin release and recalibrate your sleep/wake cycle, it helps to go to bed at a similar time each day and set your alarm for the same time each morning, even at weekends. Another option is a dawn simulator alarm clock, using light to mimic sunrise.
Avoid looking at screens or devices within a few hours of bedtime, because they emit light at the blue end of the spectrum, reducing your sleep quality.
- Nutrients to Combat SAD
If your serotonin is low you may crave carbohydrates and sugar. Eating these foods upsets blood sugar balance, making cravings worse. Choose fibre-rich whole foods instead to stabilise blood sugar.
Make sure you’re getting enough B vitamins, especially B6, important for manufacturing brain chemicals. Enjoy poultry, tuna, salmon, sweet potatoes, avocados, beans and lentils.
- Vitamin D – The Feelgood Sunshine Vitamin
This nutrient deserves a special mention because it’s incredibly important for healthy mood. People with low Vitamin D are more likely to suffer from depression.
Vitamin D is fairly scarce in foods so your skin makes it for you. This is only possible when your skin is exposed to sunlight. It takes a fair amount of sunlight to manufacture enough vitamin D for your needs – at least 15 minutes of midday sunshine, wearing t-shirt and shorts, three times weekly during the summer. In winter, when UVB light is weaker and you wear more clothes, the NHS recommends a vitamin D supplement.
Functional Medicine to Lift Your Mood
Don’t struggle through the dark days of winter. If you’re suffering from SAD it can be hard to make changes alone. I will support you every step of the way with personalised nutritional and lifestyle strategies to nurture a healthy mood throughout the year. Contact me to learn more.