Sexual & General Health

Mental Health

Don't be SAD...

... Your mood shouldn't match the winter weather!

What is SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder or 'SAD' is a mood disorder which is estimated to affect half a million people in the UK every winter between the months of September and April. The disorder is associated with episodes of depression related to seasonal variations of light. As season change, the shift in sunlight patterns can cause our biological clocks to be out 'step' with our daily schedules. The most difficult months for SAD sufferers are those of autumn and winter when there are fewer daylight hours. For many people SAD is a seriously disabling illness, preventing them from functioning normally without continuous medical treatment. For others, it is a mild but debilitating condition, causing discomfort but not serve suffering. SAD may begin at anytime of life but the main age of onset is between 18 and 30 years and is experienced by both men and women.

Symptoms of SAD

The symptoms of SAD recur regularly each winter starting between September and November and continuing until March or April. A diagnosis can be made after 3 or more consecutive winters of symptoms, which include a number of the following:

Sleep Problems: Usually a desire to oversleep and difficulty staying awake but, in some cases, disturbed sleep and early morning wakening.

Lethargy: Feeling of fatigue and the inability to carry out a normal routine.

Overeating: Craving for carbohydrates and sweet foods, usually resulting in weight gain.

Depression: Feelings of misery, guilt and loss of self-esteem, sometimes hopelessness and despair or apathy and a loss of feelings.

Social Problems: Irritability and desire to avoid social contact.

Anxiety: Tension and the inability to tolerate stress.

Loss of Libido: Decreased interest in sex and physical contact.

Mood Changes: Extremes of mood and short periods of hypomania in spring and autumn.

Compromised Immunity: Most sufferers often show signs of a weakened immune systems during the winter, and become more vulnerable to infections and other illnesses.

Possible causes

Scientists have known that sunlight affects the seasonal activities of animals, such as reproductive cycles and hibernation, for centuries, but recent research has demonstrated that seasonal light variations similarly effect the 'biological internal clocks' in humans. Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, is linked to symptoms of depression and in particular SAD. This hormone is produced at increased levels in the dark. Therefore, when the days are shorter and darker the production of this hormone increases.

What can be done?

Antidepressant medication is often prescribed to sufferers of SAD, however these can have uncomfortable side-effects. Doing as much as you can yourself to ease the symptoms through natural means is a preferred approach where possible. Here are some lifestyle and diet tips which may help to guard against the winter blues:

Eat for happiness: Foods greatly influence the brain's behaviour by having a direct effect on our neurotransmitters, especially a diet high in processed or 'junk' food. Including foods rich in wholegrains, turkey, salmon and milk products in your daily routine provides the right nutrients to support neurotransmitter function.

See the light: Phototherapy or bright light therapy with light boxes has been shown to suppress the brain's secretion of melatonin many people do respond positively to this treatment. For mild symptoms, spending as much time outdoors during the day or arranging homes and workplaces to receive more sunlight maybe helpful.

Get moving: Exercise increases the body's level of secrotonin and has been shown time and time again to be effective in reducing symptoms of depressions. 30 minutes a day of outdoor activity is best.

How do I know if I have SAD?

  • Do you have disturbed sleep patterns?
  • Do you often overeat or binge on carbohydrates or sweet foods?
  • Do you feel excessively lethargic?
  • Do you have a tendency to experience heightened anxiety, mood swings or listlessness?
  • Do you suffer from significantly decreased libido?

If you suffer from 3 or more of these symptoms during the winter months only, you could be suffering from SAD.

Mark Castle-Woodhams, October 2008