Feeling glum? (Picture: Getty/Metro.co.uk)
As the days grow shorter and the weather gets colder, it can feel like your get-up-and-go has, well, got-up-and-gone.
However, a lingering winter depression that can be severe enough to interfere with your life can be a sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which affects two million people in the UK.
What causes it? Overall, the NHS asserts that it’s reduced sunlight hours, but it’s not quite that simple, says Dr Earim Chaudry, medical director of men’s health platform Manual (manual.co). He says there are three main contributing factors:
- Increased levels of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone associated with control of the sleep-wake cycle. People with SAD may produce more melatonin, which can make them more sleepy. As winter days become darker, melatonin production increases and people with SAD become overtired and lethargic.
- Lower serotonin levels. Serotonin is a hormone that affects your mood, appetite and sleep. High levels are linked to feelings of happiness, but a lack of sunlight can lead to lower serotonin levels, which is linked to depression.
- The body’s internal clock). Your body uses sunlight to time various important functions, including when you wake up, so lower light levels during winter may disrupt your body clock.
The signs of SAD
So, how do you know if you’re struggling with seasonal affective disorder? There are some common signs:
- Loss of libido
- Difficulty waking
- Increased appetite
- Weight gain
- Difficulty concentrating
- Carb cravings
What you can do to tackle SAD
Change your alarm time
During winter, early starts can be a struggle, according to health and wellbeing expert Stephanie Taylor.
That’s because the body produces more melatonin (the sleep hormone) when it’s dark, so during the early hours there’s a lack of light to suppress and stop its production, resulting in a sluggish start.
Wake up a minute earlier each day — slowly lowering your alarm time will make it easier for your body to adjust.
Use a special light therapy SAD lamp
The light produced from the lamps can encourage your brain to reduce the production of melatonin and increase the production of seratonin, according to Dr Chaudry, which can in theory help fight depression.
A sunrise alarm clock, which gradually lights up your bedroom as you wake up, is also an option.
Include more complex carbs
Starchy carbs can cause your blood sugar to crash quickly, whereas complex carbs, such as oats, give a seratonin boost without affecting your blood sugar.
Try an air ioniser
These increase the concentration of negative ions in the air. Serotonin levels decrease in winter, which leaves you susceptible to low moods and depression.
Increased negative ions in the air have been linked to an increase in serotonin, according to trials where patients were exposed to an air ioniser at home for 30 minutes every morning for three weeks. Try Blueair Blue Pure 3210 Air Purifier, £159.
Talk it out with psychotherapy or CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy)
The main aim is to change negative thoughts and behaviours that may be making you feel worse.
Supplements that could help with SAD
- SAMe is a naturally occurring amino acid that influences neurotransmitter metabolism and your immune system. It helps produce and transport ‘happy’ hormones such as serotonin and dopamine, as well as vitamin B12, which is vital for a healthy nervous system. SAD sufferers lack enough SAMe. Try Life Extension SAMe, 30 400mg tablets, £30.98.
- Folic acid is a water-soluble B vitamin that is crucial for brain function. People with depression are more likely to have low levels of folate and this reduces serotonin levels. Folic acid works in conjunction with SAMe to control blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine, elevated levels of which have been linked with depression. Try Holland & Barrett Folic Acid, 250 400g tablets, £8.89.
- Rhodiola is an adaptogen which helps your body cope with increased levels of mental and physical stress. It has been shown to increase serotonin levels by 30 per cent, and two compounds within it, rosavin and salidrozid, help transport trytophan and 5-HTP to your brain. Try Fushi Rhodiola, 60 capsules, £13.
The truth about vitamin D
Celebrity NHS doctor Dr Rupy Aujla, author of The Doctor’s Kitchen series, says: ‘People produce less vitamin D in the winter months because of the lack of exposure to natural light, and this also happens to be when many people suffer from SAD.
‘As vitamin D is inexpensive and accessible, you can understand why researchers and the public would love for this supplement to be a cure for SAD. and other types of mood disorders. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
‘Most of the studies looking at supplemental vitamin D for SAD. are of low quality and have mixed results. Just because levels of vitamin D are lower in the winter months doesn’t mean artificially raising them is going to treat SAD.
‘But as a large portion of the population is vitamin D deficient, it would be wise to supplement during the winter months, regardless of its impact on SAD. Mushrooms, can help boost your vitamin D levels.
‘I love frying portobello mushrooms in olive oil, garlic and tarragon and serving them on toasted wholegrain sourdough with steamed greens and poached eggs.’
Lamps to lighten your mood
‘When considering buy an SAD lamp, look at the strength of the light (lux) and how long you want to be in front of it,’ says Dr Jeff Foster. ‘Brighter light takes less time but makes you more prone to headaches, irritability and fatigue. Light therapy can take several weeks to produce any effect. If it takes longer than six weeks, see your doctor.’
Ocu-Lamp by Ocushield
A portable option
As seen on Dragon’s Den, this helps to regulate blue light that disturbs circadian sleep patterns that prevent you from sleeping deeply. Developed by optometrists, the low blue light lamp helps you keep your body clock in time by controlling how much blue light it gives off, with three settings for different times of the day.
Lily Earle’s Cellreturn Platinum LED Mask
Using NASA-derived technology, this Deadpool-style mask penetrates 12 times more deeply into the skin than LED light alone. The mask is the most powerful LED face mask available globally, combining red wavelength and blue wavelength light with near-infrared technology.
Beurer Perfect Day Therapy SAD Light
Different settings for different hours (Picture: Lakeland)
This light has different settings to replicate the different times of day (sunrise, daylight, and sunset), rather than just one setting, so the lights runs with you throughout the day.
LiteLight SAD Therapy Lamp
A great value option
Mimics natural sunlight, providing an extra daylight boost, helping to improve hormone and vitamin D levels, lifting your mood.
How we’ve learned to live with SAD
Nina Spencer, 41, mum to two sets of twins
Nina’s postnatal depression morphed into SAD
I first started suffering in 2012, the year after my first set of twins were born. I initially had post-natal depression, which I believe turned into SAD. The anxiety, depression and general unease would feel much better once clocks changed, the weather became better, and the days had more sunlight. Then, in 2014, I had the mother of all panic attacks on Christmas Day. I realised it was during the darker months that I suffered.
Now I try to get outdoors as much as I can even on those darker days. I have tried a Lumie clock which is great, but my husband isn’t keen on being woken by the artificial sunlight. I up my supplements during winter to make sure I am getting enough vitamin D.
I plan things to look forward to, like a mid-season break to somewhere sunny and warm. I make the house as cosy and hygge-like as possible with blankets, candles, fairy lights, essential oils.
I create an autumn winter groove in my days where in the morning I get up before the house, turn on the fairy lights, let the dog out and get some fresh air, put some essential oils in my diffuser and then have a few moments to meditate, journal and stretch.
Keeping connected with close friends is so important, too. Especially after the last year or so.
Jemma Smith, 30, is an international tutor and education consultant
Jemma initially dismissed her SAD as a bad cold (Picture: David Stacey)
My dad also has SAD. I remember my grandma sending him a salt lamp for Christmas, when I was around 11. I asked why and he explained how he felt when winter came.
I didn’t really think about it again until university when I started to notice that in my winter terms, I was staying in bed much more. I would go through packets of chocolate biscuits and just want to sit inside. I didn’t want to see people or do anything.
I thought it was because I was cold at first, but after a few years realised it was SAD.
It was in my first job that someone had a high lux light and I thought I should try one and see if it worked for me. I didn’t go to the doctor because saying ‘I feel like staying in when it is dark and winter’ sounded odd.
I am lucky that I run my own tuition business. Since any tuition that I do is in the evening, I spend my day working on branding, emails, and talking to my client team. I can do this after taking a morning walk, next to a big window or in front of my high lux lamp, which helps.
Due to my job, I often travel during half-term and Christmas to students who live overseas and that really helps — although it is less feasible for me to just go on holiday over the whole of winter. I just wish I’d bought my lamp earlier.
Jay Stansfield, 41, is a children’s illustrator
Illustrator Jay worried that a SAD lamp would disrupt his family (Picture: Donna Craddock)
I first noticed my SAD symptoms 12 years ago, around the time our first baby was born. When the days started getting shorter, I noticed a distinct lack of zest in my character.
I’m usually quite bright and bouncy, but waking up in the dark and going to bed in the dark, living through grey days, really put me in an unhappy place. I was eating crap food, drinking less water, and moving less — it wasn’t good.
It took a while to figure out I had SAD, but my wife suggested it could be a thing because her ex-partner had suffered from it, and she could spot the signs.
I considered getting a SAD lamp, but I didn’t feel comfortable having it on when I’ve got a family. I didn’t want it to disrupt their days, so I tried taking 5-HTP on the recommendation of a friend in America.
It seemed to work after a couple of weeks. I felt a bit trippy, like I was on mild opiates, but they lifted my mood. I think taking 5-HTP shifted my perspective, so my SAD hasn’t been as bad since then.
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