SAD (seasonal affective disorder)
The Winter months and lower levels of sunlight can affect many people’s mood. For lots of us the miserable grey rainy days don’t exactly add to the joy of being outside. However for some, the reduced exposure to sunlight can be more serious leading to depressive symptoms, sending people in to a sustained low and struggling to cope. This is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
The NHS estimates SAD affects approximately one in 15 people in the UK between September and April. It can be particularly severe during December, January and February. For some, SAD is very disabling, whilst others may experience a milder version called sub-syndromal SAD, or the ‘winter blues’.
SAD isn’t fully understood yet but the thinking is the lack of sunlight might stop the part of the brain called the hypothalamus working properly. This in turn means we produce lower levels of serotonin. Serotonin is a hormone that affects our mood, appetite and sleep … and lower levels of serotonin are linked to feelings of depression.
The thinking around SAD also believes the lack of sunlight means we may produce higher levels of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that makes us feel sleepy and it’s thought that people with SAD may produce higher than normal levels.
It also thought that our body clocks can be affected by less sunlight (circadian rhythm). Our bodies use sunlight to time important body functions such as when we wake up. So the belief is that reduced sunlight disrupts our body clocks.
What to do if you think you may have SAD.
If you feel in a sustained low, one which means you’re struggling to cope and function, then as ever head to your GP. Your GP is responsible for both your physical and mental health. Depending upon the severity your GP may recommend counselling, medication for depression, or possibly the use of a special light box used to simulate sunlight. And they may suggest lifestyle changes like increased exercising.
‘In numerous studies exercise has been shown to increase both serotonin production and release. In particular, aerobic exercises, like running and biking, are the most likely to boost serotonin. However, yoga works too’ *1
There may be other GP recommendations, but first things first … get to your GP.