Are you facing a SAD winter? Top tips for managing seasonal affective disorder
On Saturday the clocks go back and we officially move from summer time to winter. Evenings will be shorter and soon we will be going to and returning from work in the dark.
I hold my hand up. I find winters harder and harder as I get older.
In my thirties I would love the cold, the warm clothes, the joy of Christmas, walks in the frost, coming home and putting on the fire with a mug of tea (or even better - a mulled wine!). In my fifties it is different. I dread the dark months and they seem to stretch on and on. It is not just the fact that I have lost people I love in those months – my father on a Christmas Day, my beloved Uncle soon after, my dear friend Don last February – it is a more than that. It is not true depression, but a feeling of heaviness and gloom and a longing for the sun to come back.
I am not alone, nor am I a diagnosed sufferer of SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder, though NHS statistics state that 1 in 15 people are affected. Symptoms start between September and November and then dissipate in March when sufferers often feel a high of relief.
The best symptom list I could find is on the Mental Health Organisation website which is as follows.
- Sleep problems - usually oversleeping and difficulty staying awake but in some cases disturbed sleep and early morning waking
- Lethargy - lacking in energy and unable to carry out normal routine due to fatigue. Heaviness in the arms and legs
- Overeating - craving for carbohydrates and sweet foods, which usually leads to weight gain
- Depression - feeling sad, low and weepy, a failure, sometimes hopeless and despairing
- Apathy - loss of motivation and ability to concentrate
- Social problems - irritability and withdrawal from social situations, not wanting to see friends
- Anxiety - feeling tense and unable to cope with stress
- Loss of interest in normally pleasurable activities
- Loss of libido - decreased interest in sex and physical contact
- Weakened immune system - vulnerability to catching winter colds and flu
- Mood changes - for some people bursts of over-activity and cheerfulness (known as hypo-mania) in spring and autumn.
If you have had two consecutive years of these symptoms then you may need a diagnosis and should seek advice. Some people are so badly affected that they are barely able to function. So manage it before it gets a dark grip on your winter.
But if you are like me, experiencing many symptoms but not to the point of losing function, what can you do?
Increase your vitamin D. Our bodies make Vitamin D in the summer months and use it over the winter. By spring you’re depleted. But if you have followed good advice to avoid sun, use high UV protection creams and have been working inside over the summer, then you may not have built up enough. The symptoms of low Vitamin D include:
- Getting sick often
- Lethargy and fatigue
So many of the SAD symptoms. In addition, low vitamin D leads to bone, back and muscle pain as well as higher risk of cancer – so a damn good reason to boost your levels. As you do not have the sunshine, this is a vitamin which does lend itself to requiring a supplement. Make it food quality and a good dose. Your nutritionist or a good health store can advise.
Increase vitamin B. This vitamin is linked to the nervous system and is sensitive to prolonged pressure or stress. Symptoms of low vitamin B include:
- Poor immunity
- Sad symptoms again. If you want a full article on the various B vitamins then Healthline is a great resource. My advice is to get your vits through food as much as you can. So boost your levels of B with green leafy vegetables, eggs, fish, shellfish, meat and, if you can do it, liver. If you do take a supplement, make sure it is morning only or you will not sleep.
Get your sleep. Lack of sleep has been recognised by the World Health Organisation as one of the biggest global health risks. Poor sleep makes you depressed, sick, forgetful and low in energy. Add this to lack of sun and you have a recipe for SAD. Follow a sleep regime – our article on getting a good night’s sleep will help. Absolutely essential is to get the technology out of your room as the blue light wakes up your brain and you will not get that restorative pattern of deep and REM sleep.
Invest in a sunshine lamp. Our brains wake up and feel good when the light hits our eyelids and tells melatonin that sleep is over. Natural waking puts your brain on alert and it is more likely to be happy. Waking in the dark to a clamouring alarm does not allow this process and so your brain feels it should be asleep. Result? You feel groggy, tired and irritable. There are lovely bodyclock lamps by Lumie available through John Lewis though they do have a digital display which I think may affect melatonin. Another idea it to buy a portable SAD lamp, also in John Lewis, and put it on a timer to wake you up. A whole range of lamps for every need can be found at SAD.co.uk
Find the sun in January or February. Every year I have had a winter break in the sun, I have done much better than the years I plod through the dark months waiting for spring. Just five days in sunshine and light can be enough to lift the winter blues. So, go south, sit outside, relax and soak up the sun. Put your hands to the sun every morning to boost your Vitamin D. Have fun. Exercise. Laugh. Then come back knowing there is only a few weeks to go before nature brings back the warmth.
So, if like me you are feeling flat as you move into Winter. Don’t be SAD – do something. And if you read those symptoms and think you have a debilitating issue, seek advice from your GP.