By Dr Sakir Thurempurath
A wistful feeling comes over us in late autumn, as the last remaining leaves drop, morning frosts cover the ground, and the sun sets earlier each day.
Hot black tea and the warmth of a favourite old coat may be all we need to face the coming winter with good cheer, but for many people, fall melancholy deepens to winter depression.
Winter depression is still a mystery to scientists who study it. Many things, including brain chemicals, ions in the air, and genetics seem to be involved. But researchers agree that people who suffer from winter depression also known as ‘seasonal affective disorder’, a term that produces the cute acronym SAD have one thing in common. They’re particularly sensitive to light, or the lack of it.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that has a seasonal pattern. The episodes of depression tend to occur at the same time each year, usually during the winter.
As with other types of depression, two of the main symptoms of SAD are a low mood and a lack of interest in life. Other symptoms of SAD include:
l being less active than normal
l sleeping more
Who is affected by SAD?
It is thought that SAD affects around 2 million people in the UK and more than 12 million people across Northern Europe. SAD can affect people of any age, including children. The symptoms are most likely to appear in someone aged between 18 and 30 years old.
SAD is sometimes known as ‘winter depression’ because the symptoms are more apparent and tend to be more severe at this time of the year. The symptoms often begin in the autumn as the days start getting shorter. They are most severe during December, January and February.
In most cases, the symptoms of SAD begin to improve in the spring before disappearing. Lack of sunlight is the factor which promotes the ill mood, but we can replace the sun light with artificial light. Days are shorter than usual during this period, so special attention is essential to expose oneself to the sunlight when possible. Morning light is more essential.
Winter depression is not a myth
Despite the fact that millions of us say we’ve suffered a winter-related low mood, it can feel as though the winter blues is just a myth. But there’s sound scientific evidence to support the idea that the season can affect our moods.
Most scientists believe that the problem is related to the way the body responds to daylight. Alison Kerry, from the mental health charity MIND, says, “With SAD, one theory is that light entering the eye causes changes in hormone levels in the body.”
In our bodies, light functions to stop the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, making us wake up. Sunlight can affect some of the brain’s chemicals and hormones. However, it is not clear what this effect is.
One theory is that light stimulates a part of the brain called the hypothalamus which controls mood, appetite and sleep. These things can affect how you feel.
It’s thought that SAD sufferers are affected by shorter daylight hours in the winter. They produce higher melatonin, causing lethargy and symptoms of depression. If you’re going through a bout of winter blues, lack of daylight is probably playing a part.
Get active to beat SAD
There is another weapon against the seasonal slump, keeping active. Dr Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, which has produced a report on the mental health benefits of exercise, says, “There’s convincing evidence that 30 minutes’ vigorous exercise three times a week is effective against depression and winter blues, and anecdotal evidence that lighter exercise will have a beneficial effect, too. If you have a tendency towards SAD, outdoor exercise will have a double benefit, because you’ll gain some daylight.”
Activity is believed to change the level of the mood-regulating chemical serotonin in the brain. It can also help by providing a pleasant change of scene, and helping you to meet new people.
If you’re suffering from SAD, your GP might be able to refer you to an exercise scheme. But if winter blues is your problem, why not get out and exercise independently?
MIND says research has shown that a one-hour walk in the middle of the day is an effective way to beat the winter blues. So what are you waiting for? Get outside and exercise the winter blues away.
As with any type of depression, SAD can be difficult to live with. It can make you feel tired, stressed and unhappy. However, it can usually be successfully treated.
Light therapy is often used to treat SAD. It involves sitting in front of, or beneath, a light box. Light boxes produce a very bright light. They come in a variety of designs, including desk lamps and wall-mounted fixtures. Before using a light box to treat SAD, speak to your GP and check the manufacturer’s instructions.
Depending on the nature and severity of your symptoms, talking therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or medication such as antidepressants may also be recommended by your GP. They will recommend the most suitable treatment programme for you, which may involve using a combination of treatments.
If you have the symptoms of SAD, visit your GP. They may carry out an assessment to check your mental health. You may be asked about your mood, lifestyle, eating and sleeping patterns and any seasonal changes in your thoughts and behaviour.
Don’t be afraid to talk about this condition with a professional, it’s nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. With a little effort, the winter blues can be beaten.
Dr Sakir Thurempurath,
MBBS, PG Dip
Aster Medical Centre, Al Rayyan
For questions and clarifications, please email at [email protected]Last updated:
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