Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression suffered by many in the winter months.
Like year-round depression, it can be mild, making you feel a bit down and lethargic, or it can be intense, interferring with your day-to-day activities.
And like year-round depression, it’s important to take your symptoms seriously, invest in lifestyle changes and self-help to improve your mood, and also to recognise when you need professional support.
According to the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA), 21% of the us will notice a real change in mood and attitude over winter, and a further 8% will need treatment.
True diagnosis of SAD can only be made after a few winters - but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it sooner. Here are some signs to look out for.
Depression - this can include experiencing negative thoughts, feeling apathetic and having a consistently low mood.
Lack of interest - losing interest in work, your hobbies, friends, sex is a sign all is not right.
Anxiety in general is often a symptom.
Physical symptoms can include lack of sleep and difficulty sleeping through the night, feeling constantly tired, suffering more winter illnesses than normal, having difficulty concentrating or feeling that your brain’s just not working properly.
Plus overeating and weight gain are common.
Important too, is noticing how you feel in the spring - do you suddenly feel a fog lift? Is your mood noticeably better? This is a clear sign that you suffer from SAD.
What can you do about it?
If it’s mild, there are a few lifestyle changes you can make, and over-the-counter supplements that can help.
Supplements and diet
Sticking to a healthy diet in general is important, even when it’s tempting to turn to sugary and fatty foods for an instant pick-me-up. (Which will lead to the inevitable crash.)
Dr Marilyn Glenville, Nutritonist and author of Natural Alternatives to Sugar advises:
“We need to make sure to keep our levels of serotonin (the ‘feel good’ hormone) high. It can easily be done by just changing our diet.
“The body makes serotonin from tryptophan, which occurs naturally in foods such as dairy products, fish, bananas, dried dates, soya, almonds and peanuts. The manufacture of serotonin depends on how much tryptophan is transported into your brain.
“Combining these foods with unrefined carbohydrates, such as brown rice, wholemeal bread or oats, helps the body to release insulin to help tryptophan uptake to the brain. A good example would be to eat eggs with wholemeal toast for breakfast.’
But sometimes even a healthy diet isn’t enough to give ultimate nutrition in winter.
“Vitamin D can help with the symptoms of mild depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD),” says nutritionist Cassandra Barns.
“Although you can get some vitamin D from foods such as butter and oily fish, it’s not really enough. The best way to get vitamin D is from spending lots of time in the sun - pretty impossible in winter. So make sure you take a supplement, such as Once A Day Sunshine D (£5.24).
Cassandra also recommends a good multivitamin. She suggests Natures Plus Source of Life Gummies, (£26.99) to help combat the feeling of tiredness and fatigue. “Packed full of important vitamins such as Folic Acid, Iron, Magnesium and Vitamin B12, multivitamin will also help you safeguard against any nutritional deficiencies.
“All of the B group vitamins and folic acid affect brain function, mood and energy levels.”
Keep a diary
Understand your fluctuating moods - keep a diary of how you’re feeling throughout the year so you can see if there’s a seasonal pattern.
It’s cruel that we need to exercise even more in the winter when we feel even less like it. But make sure you do something active at least once a day - even a walk at lunchtime is better than nothing.
Exercise is a natural mood booster and will also help to keep your immune system working well and your weight down - both things that can worsen your mood.
In Scandinavia they get even harsher, darker winters than we do. So they’ve made cosy living in winter into an artform - and even have a word for it.
‘Hygge’ roughly translates as ‘cosiness’.
Prepare your home and your family in the run up to winter to cosy up on cold evenings. Think a wood-burning stove, home-made soup (pre-made and frozen), lots of blankets, hot water bottles, fairy lights, cuddling and DVDs at the ready.
Get natural light
“Sunlight or bright daylight stimulates our body’s production of serotonin, the ‘happy hormone’. So the dark and dull days of winter can easily deplete your serotonin levels, making you feel low, sluggish and tired. Do what you can to maximise your natural light exposure,” explains Shona Wilkinson, Nutritionist at SuperfoodUK.com.
Again, this is difficult in the winter, but the short hours of daylight are thought to be a big contributor to SAD. When possible, get out in the daylight to signal to your brain that it’s daytime.
Stress worsens just about everything - SAD included. It can be difficult to avoid in modern life, but do whatever you can to reduce stress in your life.
Try meditation, keep a daily to-do list (that doesn’t include the mammoth one in your head!) and if you’re really struggling, turn down stressful projects and favours where you can - you can always make up for it in the spring.
Dr Glenville suggests: “If you feel the symptoms of stress coming on, learn to get your priorities right. There is nothing in your life right now more important than your health.
“Learn to say no if you feel that you have taken on too much. Being assertive is invigorating and empowering. It also helps to make lists of what is or is not a priority and to tackle the priority tasks first.
“This will help give you a sense of control over your life,” she adds.
Book a holiday
It sounds a little simplistic, but making sure you have lots of things to look forward to can really make a difference.
Holidays, mini-breaks, Christmas gatherings and creative projects can all give you a sense of purpose that will help propel you through the dark months.
When to visit your GP
You know yourself. If your mood is getting in the way of your normal life, and you’re finding it difficult to cope, head to your GP. Particularly if lifestyle changes make little or no difference.
In some cases SAD can be a debilitating condition and you shouldn’t suffer a moment longer than you have to.
Your GP can refer you for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), counselling, or might even suggest antidepressants.