It's Not Just 'Winter Blues': What I've Learnt About Seasonal Affective Disorder

28/05/2017 20:21 BST | Updated 28/05/2017 20:21 BST
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You wake up, look out the window, the weather is gloomy and dark, most of us feel a little bit sad, don't we?

For some (including myself), if this continues day after day, it does more than make us a little bit sad, it's a fast track pathway towards depression.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D) is one of the lesser-understood mental health conditions. Because it is, in itself, a type of depression, it is easy to think it has been bought on by other circumstances in your life. It is only when you begin to recognise the recurring annual pattern, that you realise the trigger.

What is S.A.D?

S.A.D is a type of depression most likely triggered by the lack of sunlight in winter, which affects levels of hormones (melatonin and serotonin) in the part of the brain-controlling mood, sleep and appetite - our circadian rhythms. It is thought that S.A.D affects one in 15 people in the UK.

Symptoms include a lack of energy, motivation, problems with concentration, anxiety, overeating, problems sleeping, - basically all the same symptoms as any other form of depression.

Annual mood shift

For me, it happens every year like clockwork - autumn arrives, the days get shorter and darker, and within a few weeks I am feeling unmotivated, sluggish and hopeless, inching my way towards that familiar precipice of depression. For many years I didn't recognise the pattern, attributing it to circumstances in my life (which of course play some part), but only in recent years have I begin to understand the impact that weather, and specifically light, has on my mood.

Everyone is different, but I found that making these changes made a monumental difference to my mental health and wellbeing.

1. Let the light in!

For me, it's all about the light. The difference between my mood when I'm woken up by natural sunlight, to the days that I wake up in the dark, is significant.

This is why I make sure I do the following things:

• Leave the curtains open and let the light from the sun wake me up.

• If this isn't possible, a sunlight lamp, which mimics the light from the sun, can help to wake you up in the morning (although the real thing is much better!)

• Get as much natural light as possible throughout the day. Whether this means sitting next to a window in the office, or taking a walk at lunchtime - on dark days, all the natural light you can get helps!

2. Head to sunnier climes

Allowing yourself to get out of the winter grey and absorb some all-important vitamin D is essential for staying mentally healthy throughout the winter months.

Timing a winter sun holiday for January, February or March, when the weather is at its most dismal can help. You can fly to places like Southern Spain or the Canary Islands for a few hundred pounds which have guaranteed winter sunshine and will probably cost you less than a weekend away in the UK!

3. Brave the rain

If you don't have the opportunity to spend any time in a sunnier climate during the UK winter, then spending as much time as you can outdoors is the next best option.

Trust me - it works! Absorbing any Vitamin D you can from the sun makes more of a difference than you realise. Whether this is choosing to walk part of the way to work in the morning, going outside during your lunch break- it's amazing how effective fresh air, light and physical activity is to boost those serotonin levels!

4. Early rising wins the day (and helps you sleep)

Getting up early, even though it may be hard at first, is guaranteed to make you feel better in the long run. It gives you more time to wake up, makes you feel more productive, allows you to make the most of the light, and get those endorphins flowing with some exercise in the morning. It also means that hopefully you'll be more tired and more likely to sleep when you go to bed at night.

5. Give your body goodness

Again, this is easier said than done. As soon as it begins to get cold, I tend to want to stuff my face with all the unhealthy foods imaginable. Unfortunately we know that eating unhealthy foods doesn't make us feel any better. It gives us less energy, less nutrients, and makes us feel even more sluggish and bloated.

Whilst you do need wholesome, filling foods - sticking to a diet which is high in energy fuelling winter vegetables such as carrots, leeks, cauliflower, and filling up on beans and lentils, is a much more likely to give you the energy you need to make it through those winter days.

Studies have shown that might play an important role in regulating mood and warding off depression.

Your main source of Vitamin D is the sun, but when that's in short supply, there are also now many foods that are vitamin D enriched such as cereals, milks, and of course supplements that can be added to your diet.