Seasonal Affective Disorder is something that sneaks up on many of us during the winter months.

It might feel like we’ve been in the depths of winter for a while now; the clocks have changed, our daylight hours are now limited and those long, sunny, summer days feel like a long-gone distant memory. Unfortunately, winter doesn’t actually start for another three weeks. As the dark evenings draw in earlier and earlier on a daily basis, more and more people tend to feel anxious, depressed, exhausted and experience a general lack of energy or motivation. I spoke to Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Andrew Thornber from Now Patient to find out how to combat SAD and differentiate between the winter blues and depression.

One of the main questions I had was as to what causes SAD, an inevitable complex answer, I know, but Dr. Thornber explained that there are a number of contributing factors to a diagnosis. “There is still research into what exactly causes SAD, but the main theory is that a lack of sunlight may be the main contributor. The UK and Ireland undergo substantial changes in light due to being in the higher latitude of the northern hemisphere and the changes in the clocks going back an hour and the lack of daylight are thought to disrupt the body clock and lower serotonin levels.”

The lack of sunlight that we see throughout the winter months has a more technical effect on us that we might think. Dr. Thornber went into depth about how it can alter our hormone production. “It might stop a part of the brain called the hypothalamus working properly which may affect the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that makes you feel sleepy; in people with SAD, the body may product it in higher than normal levels.” He also pointed out that our serotonin levels are affected. “Serotonin is a chemical that has a wide variety of functions in the human body. It is sometimes called the happy chemical, because it contributes to wellbeing and happiness. A lack of sunlight may lead to lower serotonin levels, which is linked to feelings of depressing which can affect your mood, appetite and sleep.” It’s quite commonly known that daylight helps to produce serotonin, so once the amount of sunlight we see declines, our hormone levels can be dramatically disrupted.

Reasons behind SAD can also be as simple as your body’s internal clock being confused, as well as genes or illness. So how do we recognise it? Dr. Thornber listed the symptoms below as ones to look out for if you think you might be suffering:

  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Low self-esteem
  • Tearfulness
  • Reduced libido
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Withdrawing from social events

Recognising why it happens and what symptoms to watch out for is important, but knowing how to help yourself if you do suffer from it, is just as vital. As recommended by Dr. Thornber, here is what you can do to prevent or improve seasonal affective disorder: “Try to get as much natural sunlight as possible. Have a little walk outside at lunchtime as this can help! Make your work and home environments as light and airy as possibly and sit near windows when you’re indoors.” Sometimes your work situation can’t be helped, so if you are stuck in an office that is scarce of natural light and air, then there are other things you can do to benfit yourself. “Take plenty of outdoor exercise in natural light and eat a healthy balanced diet. People with SAD generally crave carbs but get lots of food rich in vitamins. You can also take vitamins B12 and D to help combat symptoms.”

Essentially, its important to get as much natural air and light as possible, however this might not be a complete solution. Dr. Thornber suggested that if symptoms persist then it’s crucial that you see your GP. It’s also imperative to understand that if these feelings last longer than winter does then you should see someone about depression rather than just seasonal affective disorder.

The views expressed in this article intend to highlight studies and encourage conversation. They are for informational purposes only. Although this article features advice from professionals, we are not medically trained to offer any further advice, and it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied on for specific medical advice. If you are experiencing feelings of stress, anxiety and/or depression, please reach out to a medical practitioner for help. If you need extra help, Mind CharityThe Mental Health Foundation and Samaritans all offer immediate help at any time.

Feature image: Huffington Post