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Seasonal Affective Disorder – Sad Syndrome

We’ve arrived at the time of year with short dark days and dreary weather which can make any of us feel a bit miserable but did you know there’s a recognised condition that can affect us during these next six months that we can actually do something about. Seasonal Affective Disorder  or SAD Syndrome is also known as winter depression or winter blues. It was first described in 1984 in a research paper which looked into the depression that some people experienced at the same time each year.

It’s not been determined exactly how it comes about but reduced sunlight as well as shorter days from October through to March are thought to be linked to a chemical change in the brain. Some people describe it as if they want to hibernate – I know that’s often how I feel for the first few weeks of winter although I do adapt. It’s likely that this sleepy feeling is caused by changes in melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, which is produced by the pineal gland in the brain and a small part of our eye and is produced in response to darkness. As the nights draw in and darkness descends we produce more melatonin and feel more sleepy.  A second hormone called Serotonin, which elevates our mood, is also affected by lack of sunlight, in this case it is reduced so adds to the problem.

How would I know if I had SAD syndrome?

Some people experience symptoms of depression such as low mood, no interest in things they usually enjoy, lack of energy or they may be irritable and tired much of the day. There can be other symptoms too including headaches and weight gain.

What can I do to help myself?

In the first instance there are things you can try yourself:

  • Eating healthily with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables in your diet
  • Try and spend as much time outside in daylight as you can although this is not always easy if you work inside but making time at lunchtime to go for a walk can help

If you are inside during the daylight hours and can find a way of sitting by or near a window to improve light exposure this is helpful

  • Make sure you get regular exercise
  • Do things you enjoy doing or give yourself a treat
  • Make sure to spend time with other people especially those who normally lift your mood
  • Avoid or limit alcohol as this can make things worse
  • Don’t expect an instant return to your normal self, it can take time
  • There are also special light boxes** that you can get which help by increasing your exposure to light. The light produced by the light box replaces the sunlight and probably helps by reducing the amount of sleep-inducing melatonin your brain is producing but also possibly increases the level of Serotonin, the happy hormone and so helps you feel better

NB. If you feel you are depressed then consult your health professional

**SAD lamps – there are a lot on the market and you need to do your own research. There are a variety of prices and features. Treatment with a SAD lamp is called light therapy and is recommended to be used in the morning for anywhere between 30 minutes and 2 hours. The manufacturers details will provide recommendations for use of their lamps. You’ll find them on the internet but also your local pharmacy may be able to offer a range of options.

Even if you don’t specifically suffer from SAD syndrome, all the things we’ve mentioned would benefit all of us during these dark dreary days and nights so do take time to dress up warm and get outside in what little sunshine there is, make time for exercise, eat and drink sensibly and healthily and have the occasional treat.


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