It’s that time of year again, where it’s dark at 4pm and you realise you’ve missed out on all the sunlight whilst sitting inside.
Because of the reduced sunlight in winter months, our regular body rhythms can become out-of-sync which can cause Seasonal Affective Disorder. Abbreviated to SAD, mental health charity Mind has described it as “having your own portable black cloud.”
It has been estimated that 1 in 3 British people suffer from SAD and research has shown that women and young people are more likely to experience symptoms of winter depression. The symptoms of SAD are varied, but not confined to: a lack of energy, finding it hard to concentrate, sleep problems, low self-esteem, feeling down, withdrawal and isolation.
The exact causes of SAD aren’t clear, although they have been found to be similar to those of other forms of depression. Current research highlights strong links between weather and well-being, most notably the effects of sunlight on our mood.
The sun is your best source of vitamin D, known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’. Vitamin D helps to absorb calcium, maintaining the healthy bones and teeth. SAD becomes prevalent when vitamin D stores are low, because it also affects serotonin levels in the brain. Lack of sunlight contributes to low serotonin levels, an important chemical needed to regulate mood and social behaviour.
Melatonin is a hormone that responds to darkness by causing sleepiness and is the same hormone animals produce when they go into hibernation. The combination of decreased serotonin and increased melatonin during darker winter months can impact mood, making you feel lethargic and leading to feelings of depression.
In most cases, symptoms appear during late autumn and seem to be less prominent in spring or summer when the sunshine returns. That being said, some people experience an opposite pattern and have symptoms beginning in spring or summer, which end in the winter months.
There are many misconceptions surrounding the condition, and the existence of SAD can still be debated. But don’t brush off the winter blues if you feel a yearly pattern emerging, as the changing seasons can trigger a cycle of depression. Winter months can be a gloomy time of the year for everyone but suffering from SAD is more severe then feeling a bit glum because of the long evenings.
It is a hard concept to grasp that you feel like yourself for half the year and then feel depressive for the next couple of months. Opinion is often split on the validity of SAD as, while some people feel sunlight has an obvious effect on their mood, others are skeptical about whether SAD is a real medical condition at all.
While it may not be possible to book a sunny holiday in the depths of a dark and cold UK winter, there are steps you can follow to help minimise the effects of SAD:
- Staying active by going out for a walk can help to manage the condition as it is important to get as much natural light as possible.
- It could also be useful to keep a journal to recognise if your feelings follow a pattern, and practising mindfulness has been shown to help.
- SAD can also be treated with Light Therapy, which involves using a type of lamp called a light box for thirty minutes to two hours every day. However, this has only been suggested as a short-term solution, and it is questionable if it is beneficial at all.
- Try taking a Vitamin D supplement as this is also considered to help. But remember to get advice from your GP if you have any concerns about vitamin deficiencies and diet.
- As our hormone cycle is not balanced due to the reduced light, it can be difficult to maintain a sleep pattern which can increase feelings of depression. To reduce the likelihood of this happening, and allowing yourself to get a good nights sleep, limit your caffeine intake in the afternoon as it takes your body four to six hours to digest caffeine.
If you’re suffering from SAD and the symptoms aren’t improving after taking preliminary steps through self-help, talk to your doctor or counselling service.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, then the University has plenty of resources. You can register with the university counselling service through their website. Alternatively, the Students’ Union Advice Service is located on the first floor of the SU with drop in sessions daily from 10am to 4pm.