Seasonal Affective Disorder: Beating the Winter Blues

What Are the Winter Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder, and How Can You Avoid Them?

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Dan Brown

The days are shortening, the knitted sweaters in the wardrobe are looking more tempting, and Christmas music will soon start penetrating our airwaves. To quote a well-known TV show: winter is coming. It’s not unusual for people to experience some seasonal mood changes, such as reduced energy, changes in eating habits, and feeling a bit down. These are generally regarded as the winter blues, and can be tackled by exposing yourself to more sunlight, eating healthily, and exercising. However, should the symptoms present themselves in a more serious manner, it could be a sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which could require more advanced treatment.

What causes the winter blues and SAD?

The cause of the winter blues and SAD is not completely understood, but it is widely theorized that lack of natural sunlight plays a significant role. The amount of light your body receives is believed to affect certain hormones and chemicals, such as melatonin and serotonin, and it is possible that this impacts a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus controls your temperature, hunger, thirst, certain behavioral traits, and sleep. Thus, as the days shorten and the amount of light you are exposed to reduces, the way in which those characteristics behave changes.

The hypothalamus also controls your circadian rhythms – or body clock – disruption to which can cause symptoms similar to jet lag, such as lethargy and fatigue.

Support for the theory that light, or a lack thereof, is the key contributor to the winter blues and SAD, is that more people are affected by them the further away from the equator you get. For instance, far more people in New Hampshire (10%) – which gets just four hours of sunlight in November and December – live with SAD than in Florida (<2%), which averages seven hours of sunlight in winter.

The signs that you have SAD

The difference between the winter blues and SAD is not so much the nature of the symptoms, but the severity of them. Those living with the winter blues may find themselves feeling a bit down, craving sugary and carb-heavy foods, and lacking a little energy. However, the symptoms are not usually serious enough to have a significant impact on one’s life.

The first signs of SAD are often also tiredness and cravings for carbohydrates, but more intensely than in those with the winter blues. The ability to concentrate wanes, making it hard to focus, often impacting productivity when working or studying, and simply getting out of bed becomes increasingly more difficult.

As the days continue to shorten and the height of winter comes around, the classic signs of depression take hold. These include anxiety, emptiness, feelings of worthlessness, and a lack of interest and pleasure in usual activities or hobbies. The aforementioned symptoms such as fatigue, lethargy, and low feelings are exacerbated.

While the line between the winter blues and SAD is a blurred one, if the symptoms present themselves for two or more consecutive years, and have a tangible impact on your life, it’s possible you are living with the latter.

Using light therapy to limit the symptoms

If lack of light is the root cause of the winter blues and SAD, it stands to reason that getting more light is a smart way of tackling it. If there are any ways of increasing your intake of sunlight – such as going outside on your lunch break – that’s a great starting point. Light therapy is not a new phenomenon – Hippocrates, Herodotus, and a whole host of ancient cultures advocated the use of sunlight in healing a range of ailments.

What they did not have access to was a box capable of shining 10,000 lux of light your way, in lieu of natural sunlight. Light therapy boxes can be used for around half an hour a day, usually in the morning, to help compensate for the lack of natural light. While they are generally safe to use, side-effects such as headache and nausea are possible, and people on medication that makes their skin sensitive to light should be cautious. As such, it is recommended that you consult your doctor before starting light therapy.

Other measures you can take

Eating healthily is important in helping your body function to its maximum capabilities, and doing so is also effective against the winter blues and SAD. You might crave simple carbohydrates such as pasta, but complex carbs, including oatmeal and starchy vegetables, are slower to digest, and are a better choice. Omega-3 fatty acids can also help, either through food such as fatty fish (salmon, mackerel), walnuts, and chia seeds, or in the form of supplements. Difficult though it may be over the festive season, limiting your alcohol consumption can help prevent negative moods and emotions being amplified, and improve your sleep.

Sleep plays an important role in managing many of the symptoms associated with the winter blues and SAD, and getting into the habit of getting early nights can do a world of good. According to a study by the University of Toronto those who sleep and wake earlier are happier and healthier than those who do so later. Waking up a little earlier, in sync with the sun rising, can improve your energy, mood, and productivity. If you have to wake up particularly early, an alarm clock that mimics the sunrise can be a more relaxing way of breaking your slumber.

Finding the motivation to exercise during the winter can be a challenge, but taking half an hour a day to work up a bit of a sweat can do wonders for your physical and mental well-being. If you find yourself not moving for periods of time – if you are sat at your office, for example – set regular reminders to go for a quick walk. Even a couple of minutes at a time will help keep your energy levels up.

If you have taken measures to tackle SAD, but the symptoms persist, it is recommended you visit your doctor for advice. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be an effective treatment, or your doctor may prescribe medication to reduce the symptoms.

Make the most of winter

Winter can be a wonderful time of year, but the winter blues and SAD make it difficult for thousands of people. If you notice their symptoms in yourself or a loved one, taking proactive measures can help make sure this winter, and those in the years to come, are full of joy, happiness, and festive fun.

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