Many of us await the winter months as it means cosy fires and twinkling fairy lights. However, like any other animal, humans are affected by the lack of daylight and react by feeling more lethargic and craving comfort food. For many people, a little tiredness and a little weight gain is as bad as it gets. However, for 20% of the population the winter months, and subsequent lack of daylight, causes a period of “Winter Blues”. This period of “Winter Blues” causes discomfort but not any serious suffering. For example, you may feel tired and a bit fed up. You might even feel weepy but you manage your day-to-day life without any distress, depression or anxiety. However, at the most extreme end of the spectrum lies around 2% of the UK’s population who suffering from a debilitating illness known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
What Is SAD?
SAD is usually diagnosed after three consecutive winters experiencing the same symptoms (although for some prolonged periods of sunless skies can also be a trigger). Technically SAD manifests itself because a part of the brain, known as the hypothalamus, relies on light passing through the eye to perform its functions. Its functions are vast and include metabolic activities and other activities linked to the nervous system. It also plays a strong part in your mood, your appetite and your sleep.
In people suffering SAD a lack of sunlight stops the hypothalamus working properly and so the production of the hormone melatonin and serotonin is effected. On top of this the body’s circadian rhythm (the body’s internal clock) is said to be throw off. In other words when the hypothalamus is underperforming it can manifest itself in all sorts of ways including:
Negative thoughts and feelings
Guilt and loss of self-esteem
Hopelessness and despair
Poor Cognitive Function:
Brain does not work as efficiently
Feelings of tension
Inability to deal with stress
Lowered immune system in winter
More vulnerability to infections
The need to sleep more
Oversleeping or difficulty staying awake during the day
Disturbed sleep patterns and/or early morning awakening
Increased desire for carbohydrates to boost mood
Finding it harder to be with people
Loss of Libido
Less interest in sex and physical contact
Altered Mood In Spring (may vary)
Sudden lift in mood
Gradual loss of winter symptoms
SAD can happen at any age but is thought to also be triggered by certain factors such as childbirth, illness or a change in environment (and amount of light). It is noticeable that it occurs in the Northern and Southern hemispheres but is very rare 30 degrees of the Equator.
What is the treatment if you feel you have SAD? Well, the first port of call is light therapy, which is proven to be effective in 85% of cases. Treatment using a 10, 000 lux light box can take as little as 30-60 minutes a day to lift the symptoms of SAD. What’s more,, treatment can have a positive effect within 4 days and it’s perfectly fine to carry out normal activities (eating, working, reading) while undergoing light therapy.
For the cases where light therapy does not prove to be effective, or where additional treatment is required, some anti-depressants and therapy methods (particulary CBT) have also proven to be effective.
SAD is a recognised disabling illness and it’s important that you seek help fast if you feel you are suffering from any of the above symptoms.