During winter months, it is very common for us to experience fluctuations in our moods. The weather can change how we feel daily; that is why on sunnier and brighter days we may experience feeling cheerful and energised. On the other hand, grey and rainy days might also leave us feel gloomy and tired.
In the spring and summer months, we are much more likely to have longer spells of sunshine that provide us with vitamin D, an essential nutrient which helps our bodies absorb calcium and maintain bone health. 90% of our essential vitamin D must come from our skin’s unprotected exposure to the sun, however during the winter months (October to March) the sun’s ultraviolet rays are not strong enough for the body to synthesise into vitamin D. Even in summer, those who spend a lot of time indoors, use skin products containing sun block, wear concealing clothing or have a darker skin tone are highly likely to have low Vitamin D levels.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as the ‘winter blues,’ is thought to affect around 2 million people in the UK and Ireland and more than 12 million people across Northern Europe. SAD can be sometimes referred as the “winter depression” because its symptoms become more apparent and severe during darker and cold months.
The term “winter blues” is a serious mental health condition that affects many people around the world. Short daylight combined with the stress of holiday season may have a negative effect on many people’s mental health.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that usually occurs around same time each year in winter when the days are shorter and darker. According to the NHS, it “comes and goes in a seasonal pattern” and 1 in 15 people suffer from it between the months of September and April.
It is more than just the “winter blues” as it has a negative effect on people’s lives day to day and can be distressing overall. People who experience SAD usually go through similar mood changes and symptoms to depression. December, January, and February tend to be the most challenging times for people with SAD. However, the mood swings often start to improve with the arrival of the spring.
In the UK and Ireland we are more susceptible as we are situated in the northern hemisphere, where we experience large changes in ultra violet light levels between the summer and winter. In the winter we experience dark, gloomy weather, which can have a profound effect on our body clocks, resulting in an impulse for hibernation. Extended periods of darkness can cause us to eat more and be less energetic, making us feel lethargic and sluggish with physical activity an effort.
Symptoms of SAD could be depression, fatigue and social withdrawal with a low mood that can last for a long time affecting the day-to-day life. Although it can vary season to season or change depending on a person’s background, some of the other symptoms of SAD can be as below:
Being less active than normal
Sleeping more or less than usual
Lack of energy and motivation
Problems with concentrating
Lack of desire to socialise
Change in appetite, eating more or less than usual
Increased feeling of anxiety
In general, SAD is a more mild and moderate form of depression but can still affect daily lives of those who experience it. By recognising your tendency to experience SAD and being mindful about its symptoms, you can make certain lifestyle changes to cope with it more effectively.
Ways to help Ease the effects of SAD
Light therapy is a common natural remedy used to treat seasonal affective disorder and is characterized by the use of a light box to replace the lack of sunlight in autumn/winter months. The light emitted from the box is approximately 20 times brighter than typical indoor lights. Its use is recommended for approximately 30 minutes to two hours per day, early in the morning.
Boosting your vitamin D levels
Vitamin D supplementation is an easy and inexpensive way to help reduce the symptoms of SAD. Public Health England now advise everyone to take a daily vitamin D supplement during this period to protect bone and muscle health, but this simple supplementation could also protect you against the effects of SAD. Everyone above the age of 1 should consume10 micrograms of vitamin D a day. This includes pregnant and breastfeeding women.
We can get Vitamin D from sources other than the sun at times like these. Vitamin D is found in some foods such as oily fish, red meat, liver, egg yolks and fortified foods such as most fat spreads and some breakfast cereals.
As it does with other forms of depression, exercise can help alleviate seasonal affective disorder, too. Outdoor exercise would be most helpful. But if you cannot exercise outside because it's cold or snowy, choose a treadmill, stationary bike, or elliptical machine close to a window at the gym.
If you think what you are experiencing might be SAD make sure to discuss your situation with a trained medical or mental health professional before beginning any type of treatment. SAD can be a manageable condition with the right care and treatment provided.
If you feel your depression is severe or if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, consult a professional.