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15th December 2022

Winter making you sad? It might be S.A.D.

Feeling abnormally sad in the winter? You’re not being dramatic, you could have seasonal affective disorder!
Winter making you sad? It might be S.A.D.
Photo: Leanee Boulton @ Flickr

Winter is the season of wearing big coats and scarves, drinking hot chocolate while watching Love Actually for the 5th time, and frosty explorations of Manchester Christmas Market. It’s seemingly the most magical time of the year, so why do some people feel so down?

What is S.A.D.?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, more often (and ironically) shortened to S.A.D., is sometimes referred to as ‘Winter Depression’. It affects just around 10% of the population, however many people experience milder versions of its symptoms.

The cause of S.A.D. is not widely understood by health experts, but the main theory is that the lack of sunlight causes the part of the brain called the hypothalamus to stop functioning as it should. The hypothalamus produces hormones which regulate body temperature, hunger, melatonin production (drowsiness), circadian rhythms (sleep cycles), and serotonin release (mood). An imbalance in these hormones can explain some of the common depression-like symptoms.

S.A.D. or depressed?

The difference, however, between these depression symptoms and symptoms of S.A.D. is the regularity. Depression can show itself at any point in the year and has no pattern to it. S.A.D., on the other hand, initially appears as common depression, but arrives at the same time each year, and will completely disappear as the weather gets warmer and the days get brighter.

In recent years, S.A.D. has been shown to be directly related to other mental health disorders. When examined for S.A.D., it is highly common to be tested for bipolar disorder, as it is estimated that up to 50% of people with symptoms of S.A.D. have bipolar disorder. Up to 22% of those diagnosed with bipolar experience seasonal cycles of mania and depression, which leads to the initial diagnosis of S.A.D.

Photo: Robert Ćwikliński @ Flickr

Seeing the light in S.A.D.

A study done by researchers at the University of Virginia suggests found that a genetic mutation in the photopigment in the eye could explain the development of S.A.D in the darker months. The mutation causes lower receptiveness to light and was found in all participants who had S.A.D. Importantly, it was not found in any of the other participants. Although all S.A.D. sufferers may not have this gene, the recognition of this mutation may allow S.A.D. to be diagnosed long before symptoms show, allowing for preventative measures to be taken.

How is S.A.D. treated?

One of the main options available to those with S.A.D. is light therapy. Based on the idea that S.A.D. develops due to the lack of sunlight received in winter, this therapy works by emitting white light at an intensity of almost 10,000 lux (comparable to ambient daylight) towards a person for a set amount of time each morning.

This is known to lessen the effects of sunlight deprivation by stimulating cells in the retina of the eye. This sends signals to the hypothalamus that the body is receiving sunlight, and therefore it is daytime. You’re basically tricking your body into thinking that you’re getting more daylight than you actually are.

Although a very simple concept in design, light therapy has been praised by many across the globe and is the most recommended treatment method for people with symptoms of S.A.D.

Do I have S.A.D.?

Whilst the symptoms of S.A.D. can be intense, it is not easily diagnosed. Many people experience a general decline in mental health towards the winter months, but this is not typically diagnosed as S.A.D. If you are like the average 1st-year university student, you might find yourself partying until 6am, passing out, and waking up at 4pm when it’s dark out (we’ve all been there).

With this pattern, you could find yourself not seeing the sun for days. A lack of sunlight leads to a lack of Vitamin D, which helps in the production of serotonin in the body. Lack of serotonin = low moods!

Photo: Allison Hillard @ Flickr

How can I help myself?

The easiest way to ease the passage into winter is by taking vitamin D supplements. These are readily available in any supermarket or pharmacy and even come in strawberry-flavoured chewy sweets for those who can’t stomach tablets. That little extra vitamin D has been proven to boost moods and productivity during the winter months.

Even if it’s just for a 10-minute walk to Sainsbury’s, get some sunlight. Stand outside, open your curtains, and go pick up your parcels in your PJs if it means you see some sun. Even leaving your curtain open in the daytime can help to boost your mood dramatically.

If you are experiencing severe, out-of-the-ordinary changes in your mood, and they are affecting your day-to-day living, reach out to your GP or the university counselling service to get help.

University Helpline: 0161 275 2864 (open weekdays 9am – 4.30pm)

Samaritans:0161 116 123 (open 24/7)

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