Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a term used to describe low mood related to changes in the seasons. Typically it starts in the winter months and resolves in the spring.
Less often, SAD causes low mood in the spring or early summer and resolves during the autumn or winter months. Symptoms are similar to those of general low mood and anxiety, including sadness and apathy, fatigue and lethargy, oversleeping, disturbed sleep, early waking, overeating, craving sweet foods, weight gain, loss of self esteem, tension and irritability.
Disappointingly, the limited medical research carried out to date has not provided a definitive physiological explanation for seasonal low mood.
Causative factors in SAD
Our personal circadian rhythm is a roughly 24-hour cycle of day and night which controls many bodily functions, including body temperature and hormone production. A lack of sunlight can disrupt the body’s internal clock and hormone production, encouraging the appearance of SAD symptoms. Too much unnatural light can also disrupt the body’s natural rhythms.
SAD appears to be more common among people who live in areas far north and south of the equator, where there is significantly decreased sunlight during the winter and longer days during the summer.
A second factor in SAD is melatonin, the ‘sleep’ hormone, produced by the pineal gland in the brain when it is dark. A lack of darkness reduces melatonin production and impedes the onset of sleep. It is thought that during the winter months some people produce higher amounts of melatonin than normal, resulting in SAD symptoms such as sleepiness and low energy levels.
A third factor is the hormone serotonin which affects mood, appetite and sleep. Fewer hours of sunlight, especially on darker skin, can mean less Vitamin D is produced by the skin. This results in less serotonin being available, particularly if dietary and supplemental Vitamin D are not compensating for the lack of its production by the skin. Some people are prone to suffer more than others, with depression-like symptoms of low serotonin.
Thyroid dysfunction can cause similar symptoms to SAD and there is some thought that thyroid involvement may be involved in the condition, so it is worth having your thyroid function checked.
Behavioural remedies for SAD
- Make your environment sunnier and brighter. Open blinds and curtains, trim tree branches, and remove anything that blocks sunlight. Sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office.
- Normalise sleep patterns. Schedule regular times to wake up and go to bed each day. Especially for winter SAD, reduce or eliminate napping and oversleeping.
- Go outside. Take a long walk, eat lunch at a park, or simply sit on a bench and soak up some sun. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help and is particularly beneficial if you can spend some time outside within two hours of getting up in the morning.
- Exercise regularly and preferably outdoors. Physical activity helps to relieve stress and anxiety, both of which can increase SAD symptoms. Being fitter can make you feel better about yourself and lift your mood and sense of wellbeing.
- Practice stress management. Learn relaxation techniques to manage your stress better, such as yoga, tai chi and meditation. Unmanaged stress can lead to depression, overeating, or other unhealthy thoughts and negative behaviours.
- Socialise. Connect with people you enjoy being around who can offer support, a shoulder to cry on or shared laughter to give you a mood boost.
Natural remedies for SAD
- Daily light therapy using a specialised SAD lamp or a full spectrum lightbulb in an ordinary light fitting.
- Amino acid 5 Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) to support Vitamin D processing. This can be obtained from whole grains such as oats or taken as a supplement.
- Vitamin D 1,000 IU and up to 4,000 IU daily is advisable in winter months or for dark skin, and up to 10,000 IU daily if there is a deficiency.
- Essential fatty acids – fish, flaxseed or primrose oil are good sources.
- High quality multivitamin with minerals, and B complex.
- The homeopathic remedy Aurum Metallicum.
- St John’s Wort (Hypericum) is widely used as a herbal antidepressant but please consult your doctor if you take prescription drugs or oral contraceptives and be aware that it can cause sleepiness.
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