It’s not uncommon to feel slugglish, sleepy and like you want to go into hibernation during the winter months – but what if those slightly down days and ‘depressing’ mornings become more than that? Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) is one of the most controversial diagnoses of our time, with many medical practitioners still continuing to believe it’s just a case of feeling a little blue during the winter months. However, the number of suffers are continuing to increase and it’s becoming a more commonly understood condition. According to Metal Health America, SAD affects half a million people between September and April, peaking between the months of December and February when light is at its lowest. Most of us are affected by the change in seasons and it’s perfectly normal to feel to feel more energised when the sun is shining, but for many the winter months bring the onset of intolerable symptoms that have a huge impact on their daily lives.
three out of four SAD sufferers are women and the onset of symptoms
usually occur between the ages of 18 and 30. A diagnosis of SAD can
technically be made after three consecutive winters of showcasing
symptoms, if the summer months illustrate complete remission – but in
the UK it’s still incredibly hard to make that happen. (Our GPs are time poor
and unfortunately don’t have enough resource to treat each individual
in the way they would often like.) Key symptoms of SAD include
depression (misery, guilt, loss of
self-esteem, hopelessness,) anxiety (tension and inability to tolerate
stress,) mood changes, sleep problems and lethargy (a desire to
oversleep, difficulty staying awake or disturbed sleep,) overeating
(craving for starchy and sweet foods,) social problems (irritability and
desire to avoid social contact) and loss of libido. Although I’m sure
we can all relate to that list to some degree, with SAD the impact is
huge; sufferers dread the onset of the winter months and struggle to pull
themselves away from the sheets on a daily basis.
what causes such a huge change in our emotional state during these
colder and darker days? As sunlight has affected the seasonal activities
of animals (i.e. hibernation), SAD is thought to be an effect of this
seasonal light variation in humans. As seasons change, there is a shift
in our ‘biological internal clocks’ due partly to these changes in
sunlight patterns; this can cause our biological clocks to be out of
‘step’ with our daily schedules and cause all number of issues. (I don’t
think cavemen understood the pressures of 15hr working days, constant
stimulation by technology and a desire to burn the candle at both ends –
we’re simply not designed for it.) Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone
secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, has also been linked to SAD.
This hormone (which has been known to cause symptoms of depression) is
produced at increased levels in the dark; therefore, when the days are
shorter and darker, the production of this hormone increases. Similarly, it’s also thought that sufferers of SAD have a lower level of serotonin – the hormone responsible for relaying messages to the areas of the brain that control mood, sexual desire, appetite, sleep, memory and temperature regulation.
a result, phototherapy (or bright light therapy) is the most common
treatment and has been shown to suppress the brain’s secretion of
melatonin. Light therapy has been shown to be effective in up to 85% of
diagnosed cases during clinical trials, but it’s still somewhat
controversial and is constantly debated in the media. Investing in a Lumie Light
is a great way to try this treatment out, as their alarm clocks have
been designed to replicate the rising of the sun and awake you with
natural light; similarly, they offer a range of desk lights
to ensure you remain alert throughout the day. (I’ve got both of these
and honestly rely on them to get me up in the morning and keep me perky
throughout my working week; there’s something about a bright light that
just keeps my eyes wide open.) For mild symptoms, spending time
outdoors during the day or arranging your workspace to receive more
natural light may be helpful. Taking a walk during your lunch break or
going for a pre-work stroll may be a great way to get your daily Vitamin
D while ensuring you can perform at your best. If phototherapy doesn’t
work, antidepressants can be prescribed in extreme cases – but as
always, there can be side effects.
I’m utterly convinced I have SAD to some degree as I really struggle during the winter months. I find it incredibly hard to get myself out of bed and have a productive day, often have to go for a walk or leave the house to keep myself awake, am known to be incredibly irritable and grumpy, want to eat all of the food all of the time, and frequently feel at a complete loss as to what I’m doing with my life. Over the last few years I’ve been known to get overly emotional and often struggle to motivate myself to get up and leave the house; scheduling a lot of meetings and forcing myself is definitely the way forward! My Lumie Light has definitely helped, but there’s nothing like a walk in the winter sunshine. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way (and I know that others have symptoms that are a million times worse,) so it’s important to open up a conversation about a condition that’s mostly unheard of, if not misunderstood. If you can relate to any of the symptoms described, please do talk to someone and seek help where necessary; if you know someone who could possibly be suffering from SAD and be unaware, please talk to them and let them know they’re not alone. Like many conditions, SAD is completely treatable and manageble – but we need to know what we’re dealing with.
For more information, advice and support on SAD, have a look at the Mind website.
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