What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

As the days grow shorter and the temperature drops, some of us may notice a shift in our mood. This change, often more profound during the winter months, is commonly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. It's a type of depression that typically occurs at a certain time of year, usually in the colder, darker months.

SAD is more than just the "winter blues" or a passing gloominess. It's a significant change in mood and behaviour. Symptoms can include feelings of sadness or hopelessness, loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, changes in sleep or appetite, and low energy. These changes happen because reduced sunlight can disrupt our body's internal clock, affecting our sleep-wake patterns and potentially altering the balance of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood.

The good news is that SAD can be treatable. Treatments range from light therapy, where a special lamp mimics natural sunlight, to counselling and medication. Simple lifestyle changes can also make a big difference, like spending more time outside during daylight, exercising regularly, and keeping a well-balanced diet.

Where does sleep come in?

Our bodies are circadian. This means they run on an internal, biological clock that responds to light and dark, day and night. When all is working well, it governs the sleep-wake cycle, digestive process, body temperature and hormone production. We now know that this cycle (and most importantly - the rest achieved during sleep) is essential for living a long healthy life.

To minimise the risk of falling out of sync, maintaining good sleep hygiene is key. Most of us know this includes going to bed at a similar time each night and minimising screen time. However, what we do when we wake up is also important. 

Recent evidence has shown that specialised cells in our eyes (ones that process sensory light input) give feedback to the brain to help regulate the sleep-wake cycle. This means that getting outside in the morning and taking a walk in the daylight can help us get a more natural sleep later that evening. With this in mind, it's easy to see that if you have a particular shift pattern, the shorter days can lead to a drastic drop in the amount of sunlight you can get in winter and this may impact your circadian rhythm.  If you are waking up and starting work before the sun rises, it may be useful to put a light box into your bedroom with a sunrise setting that aligns with your alarm to help ease you into the day. Seek advice from your doctor if you are affected by an inability to sleep (known as insomnia) on a regular basis.

From September to March, it is recommended that everyone in the UK consider taking a Vitamin D supplement. If you spend enough time outdoors in summer, we can usually get enough from the sun via our skin. Good sources of vitamin D that we can get from our diet all year round include eggs, oily fish, red meat and some fortified foods like cereals. The symptoms of SAD may represent another nutritional deficiency or underlying condition, consider consulting your doctor or GP to get a fuller assessment.

If you have SAD or even winter blues, seek support from those around you, such as your friends, family and Roczen clinician. Set realistic goals and be compassionate towards yourself. It's not uncommon for those with SAD to experience some weight gain and increase in cravings for carbohydrates during winter, which is particularly disheartening for those who have made an effort in spring and summer to maintain a healthy weight. Opting for moderate protein meals, with adequate fibre from a variety of vegetables, will help you feel fuller for longer and help to prevent excess weight gain.

SAD is a real and impactful condition that can significantly alter our mood and overall well-being, especially during the colder, darker months. Understanding the intricate relationship between our environment, our body's internal clock, and our mental health is crucial in managing SAD. While treatments like light therapy, counselling, and medication are effective, incorporating lifestyle changes such as maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, getting regular exposure to natural light, and following a nutritious diet are equally important. Additionally, the support of friends, family, and healthcare professionals can provide necessary encouragement and guidance. It's important to listen to your body and seek professional help if you suspect you are experiencing SAD. By taking proactive steps and being mindful of our health during these challenging times, we can better manage the symptoms of SAD and maintain our well-being throughout the year.

August 31, 2023
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