SAD? How to fight back in Winter and regain that spring in your step
Updated: Sep 23, 2018
Seasonal Affective Disorder affects an estimated 2 million people in the UK and Ireland are affected. SAD occurs throughout the northern and southern hemispheres although it’s extremely rare in those living within 30 degrees of the Equator where daylight hours are long and bright constantly.
Symptoms typically begin in October and increase until they reach a peak in January and February. The symptoms can remain high until April and May and may include some or all of the following:
Lethargy and inability to cope with daily routine.
Over-eating, notably with sugar and carbohydrate cravings.
Loss of concentration and memory.
Anxiety and pessimism.
Loss of libido.
Irritability and inability to tolerate stress.
Sufferers of SAD feel less active, have a decreased interest in life generally and crave sleep (and carbs).
Little or no exposure to sunlight can lead to vitamin D deficiency depleting your immune system. Shorter daylight hours may mean less fresh air and exercise. Centrally-heated offices, homes, shops and gyms typically spread germs. So, during these short days but long winter months ahead, our health face more challenges and therefore may need special care during this time to keep winning.
Wake up between 6am and 8am
Our body clocks respond to certain signals at specific times in order to function well. This includes getting the right type of natural ultraviolet light. In sufferers of SAD, the short daylight hours of winter seem to play havoc with their body clock, upsetting their circadian rhythms.
Oversleeping and hitting the snooze button increases levels of melatonin, a hormone. Melatonin production is stimulated by a lack of daylight so levels are highest between dusk and dawn. Theories abound that SAD stems from an overproduction of melatonin during the long winter nights, leaving sufferers feeling sleepy and lethargic.
It’s therefore vital to maintain a regular sleep/wake pattern in the winter months. Keep your alarm set at the usual time (even at weekends); sitting by a window first thing in the morning light or walking to work if that’s an option, will ensure you wake up your internal body clock to do its stuff.
Swap your morning coffee
You may reach for caffeine in an attempt to rouse yourself into a more alert state but caffeine suppresses levels of serotonin, one of our main ‘happy hormones’. Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan so it’s essential that a good supply is present in the diet to optimise production. A deficiency of tryptophan (or indeed a lack of one of the nutrients needed to help turn it into serotonin), can compromise production.
Reduced exposure to sunlight in winter months means that this essential ‘feel-good’ hormone can already be in short supply, so curb your caffeine intake.
This may feel like an impossibility when it’s cold, dark and raining outside but studies show that aerobic exercise raises our serotonin levels and reduces stress. Exercising outside in daylight hours yields added benefits due to the natural exposure to sunlight which will help to boost levels of vital Vitamin D. Even a brisk walk twice a day will help.
Eat more fish
A 2010 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry looked at the effectiveness of omega-3 in treating major depression. Those who took a high-dose fish oil supplement showed results that were comparable to conventional antidepressants. Coldwater fish is also a great source of Vitamin D so when we can’t get enough Vitamin D from natural sunlight in the darker months, it’s essential we increase our intake through food sources such as oily fish (mackerel, sardines, salmon and trout), butter and eggs.
Keep your blood sugar levels balanced
Sugary, refined and processed meals and snacks will disrupt your blood sugar levels leaving you feel even more demotivated and lacking in energy. Instead, opt for fresh, wholefoods in your diet and include a wide variety of vegetables, wholegrains, pulses and legumes.
Ensure each meal contains protein, such as lean meat, chicken, turkey or fish and combine this with complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, wholewheat pasta and steamed vegetables.
Snack on good carbs
Low serotonin levels can make you crave carbs – that’s a fact. But, as appealing as eating bowls of pasta in bed with chips, bread and doughnuts might seem, be mindful of which carbs you choose. Gorging yourself on unhealthy carbs will create blood sugar swings, leading to decreased energy and potential weight-gain which can add to feelings of negativity and low mood.
We need good quality, complex carbs, alongside tryptophan, in order to make serotonin. Smart choices include nuts and seeds with a piece of fruit (apples, grapes or a pear); this will keep your energy levels sustained throughout the day.
Light therapy boxes
Many people respond well to ‘light therapy’ using a natural daylight box on a daily basis. There have been many studies on the effectiveness of light therapy during the winter months and it has been clinically proven to help treat SAD. There are many different types of light boxes out there, including revolutionary alarm clocks, or ‘Dawn Simulators’ that can also help.
Plan get-togethers with friends and get yourself out and about. Trips to the cinema, art galleries, exhibitions or signing up to an evening class are great ways to keep yourself busy and occupied. Make this winter the time you take up a new exercise class or try a creative pursuit such as photography, cookery classes or jewellery-making.
Try to engage in the positive aspects of winter such as bracing walks on a crisp day by the sea or kicking up leaves in woodland; reward yourself with nourishing and wholesome soups and stews and the odd hot toddy or mulled wine. If it all gets too much, consider booking a winter holiday in the sun, or a city break or spa break.
Remind yourself that winter isn’t forever – signs of Spring will soon re-appear again and when it does, SAD will pass…
For further information and support, please contact The Seasonal Affective Disorder Association at http://www.sada.org.uk/
Article: Daniela Barbaglia – registered nutritional therapist Dip NT Mbant CNHC