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Feeling Sad? Blame it on the weather

Feeling Sad? Blame it on the weather

As the nights draw in and the days get shorter, often we wake in the dark, and see the sun set before we’ve left our desks; many may feel we hardly see any sunlight at all. Along with these changes, some people experience an emotional change, too. Here we uncover the truth behind seasonal affective disorder – the signs and symptoms, along with the ways to combat the condition.

Many of you are familiar with those days when you experience feeling generally fed up, and are not quite sure why. You might try to pass it off as being a little “under the weather”, as you reach for those comforting, carbohydrate-rich foods instead of your usual healthier option – after all, how else are you going to support your dwindling energy levels, and find the motivation needed just to get through the day?

Of course, it’s normal to experience those occasional “off days”, when our mood suddenly seems to take a nosedive for no apparent reason. However, if those days start increasing in frequency, and those simple daily tasks become too much of a chore, or perhaps fun things like meeting up with friends feel like too much effort, then it may be a good idea to get checked out.

The reality is you may be one of the many people experiencing a condition known as seasonal affective disorder, or its appropriately named acronym, SAD.

What is SAD? 

SAD is a mood disorder subset in which people who have stable mental health most of the time, experience depressive symptoms over the same period each year, most commonly during the autumn and winter months. While we do not fully understand what causes SAD, experts believe that the reduced amount of daylight at this time of year is a major contributing factor.

What are the symptoms to look out for? 

While the symptoms are similar to those associated with the chronic, and at times debilitating, mental health condition known as depression, the warning signs invariably appear as winter approaches, and disappear as springtime emerges. Symptoms are often milder in the autumn months, but worsen as the hours of natural daylight diminish.

Symptoms include:

  • Low mood and despair
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling stressed
  • Reduced libido
  • Indecision
  • Irritability
  • A loss of pleasure or interest in everyday activities
  • Crying
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
  • Sleeping for longer than normal, or finding it hard to get up in the morning
  • Craving carbohydrates
  • Social withdrawal
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • For some people, these symptoms can be severe and have a significant impact on their lifestyle and

    productivity, as well as their relationships. Often individuals experience an acute reduction in their sense of enjoyment in everyday activities that previously felt like simple life pleasures.

    Who is affected? 

    While depression affects one in four of us in the UK, estimates on how many people are affected by SAD can vary greatly. Some estimates believe it to affect anywhere from one in three to one in 15 people in the UK, while research from the Weather Channel and YouGov suggests it is 29% of adults in the UK who actually experience symptoms of SAD. It’s also believed that approximately one in eight (12.5%) adults have the less severe “winter blues” – a much less well-defined change in mood.

    According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the main risk factors for SAD are age, sex, distance from the equator (regions farther to the north and south tend to have shorter days and less sunlight in winter), and a history of depression or other mood disorders. Studies have also shown that young adults and women are more likely to be affected – the gender difference ranges from 2:1 to 9:1.

    While it is difficult to diagnose SAD, according to experts, to have genuine SAD a person must have experienced depression-like symptoms for two years running. Winter blues often involves a lack of sleep, while SAD means people are permanently tired and spend longer in bed.

    What can we do to help ourselves? 

    Thankfully there are a range of treatments available for SAD. Your GP or counsellor should be able to recommend the most suitable for you. 

    These include:

  • Lifestyle measures: Getting as much natural sunlight as possible, exercising regularly and managing your stress levels. While you may be tempted to stay inside on those cold, dark days and hide away from the  world around you, looking after your mental health is paramount to your sense of wellbeing. Making time to get outdoors in natural daylight and enjoy a brisk 20-minute walk three to five times a week will not only increase the amount of vitamin D you get from natural light, but studies have shown that exercise helps lift your mood and can counteract depression as well.
  • Light therapy: A special lamp called a light box is used to simulate exposure to sunlight. Just 20–30 minutes each day is often all that is required. Light therapy works quickly and people often notice some improvement in the first week. 
  • Tech tips: To help address the symptoms of SAD, technology is giving a helping hand in the form of specially-designed alarm clocks – sometimes known as sunrise or natural alarm clocks. These work as a form of light therapy, gradually increasing in light until your desired wake-up time, allowing for a more peaceful wake from sleep, and have been clinically proven to help treat SAD. There are many options on the market, from brands such as Lumie, Philips and Beurer.
  • Talking therapies: Cognitive behavioural therapy has been proven to be effective in the treatment of this disorder, and a counsellor will be able to help if you find yourself struggling.
  • Antidepressant medication: Such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can be effective.
  • St John’s Wort: A natural herbal remedy thought to be effective for depressive symptoms, and SAD.
  • Diet and nutrition: Increase your omega 3s and vitamin D intake by eating more oily fish, red meat, liver, egg yolk, fortified foods such as most fat spreads, and some breakfast cereals.
  • Vitamin D supplement: Public Health England (PHE) recommend that we all take a daily supplement containing 10–20mg of vitamin D between the months of October and March, to make up for a less sunlight during this period.
  • Recent research suggests 29% of adults in the UK experience symptoms of SAD. Whatever your choice of treatment, it is important for each of us to be able to differentiate the symptoms of SAD from the more chronic, long-term and debilitating condition – depression. While symptoms may be similar, people experiencing SAD can take some comfort in the knowledge that life will feel much easier to manage by adopting some simple changes, and accessing the variety of therapies available.

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