We’ve often heard people joke about having SAD - the disorder that leaves people feeling low energy and often ill in the months without much warmth or sunlight. This is probably, in large part, to do with the fact that the acronym spells out the very basic feeling sufferers of the disorder experience, but the truth is, it’s far more serious than that and can have significant repercussions if left untreated.
But what actually is Seasonal Affective Disorder and how do you know if you’ve really got it, or whether you’re just a bit fed up? It’s not always easy to tell the difference, but with the correct information, you can make a more informed assessment.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
According to the NHS, SAD is “a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern” and is usually triggered by and more severe in the winter, currently affecting around 1 in every 15 people - particularly between the months of September and April. Commonly flaring up when there is a change in the weather or seasons, it can be exacerbated by the natural changes your sleep and diet can go through during the darker and colder months.
Thought to be caused by an interruption to your circadian rhythm (your body’s internal clock), an increased production of melatonin (the sleep hormone) and decreased production of serotonin (the happy, energetic hormone), it’s unsurprising that it affects so many people. Millions of years ago, humans would have ‘hibernated’ during the winter much like other mammals - sleeping through the cold and dark and only surfacing during the daylight hours, conserving energy to help them survive. Though our living conditions are now much easier, our bodies still naturally year to adhere to this winter rhythm whilst we force ourselves to get out of bed early for work and continue our lives at the same high-energy pace we enjoy in the summer.
However, as it includes many of the same symptoms as other illnesses, Dr Asif Munaf, medical doctor and NHS clinical entrepreneur, explains that it can often be mistaken for something else:
“SAD is commonly mistaken for the beginning of depressive illness itself or for other medical conditions such as fibromyalgia or vitamin D/thyroid/iron deficiency, as the signs and symptoms of tiredness and pallor can prevail.”
So… what are the symptoms?
Dr Munaf says that the most common symptoms to look out for “include tiredness, apathy, low mood and decreased appetite.”
When isolated, many of the symptoms may not seem severe - mere side effects of trudging through the Winter. However, when put together, these may be a sign of a much larger issue, like Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Due to the lack of serotonin and daylight, our bodies can often feel lacking in energy during the winter months. As overproduction of melatonin also kicks in, and so does the feeling of needing more sleep. Though it’s normal to find it difficult to get up during the winter months, if this is becoming somewhat impossible, this should be a warning sign. When coupled with a lack of concentration, social withdrawal and a continually low immune system, it could be a sign that you’re suffering with SAD. Add a constant low mood or feeling of hopelessness into the mix, and it might be time to see a doctor.
How to ease symptoms
Though it’s always advisable to seek advice from a doctor for any ongoing health issue, there are certain steps you can take to alleviate or minimise the symptoms of SAD aside from medical intervention.
Let in the light
Of course, one of the most significant catalysts of SAD is a lack of sunlight. Dr Munaf recommends taking time in your lunch break to get outside: “People can try to get at least 20-30 of sunlight during their lunch break by going for a walk and taking in fresh air. If the sun is out then all the better. It is vital to maximise sunlight exposure whenever the sun comes out during these short winter days.”
An even better alternative would be to get yourself to sunnier climes for a short break. Not only will it ensure you get that necessary dose of Vitamin D, it also offers a proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ - something to look forward to through the dreariest days of winter.
Incorporating exercise into your daily routine has long been regarded as a great defence mechanism against mental health dips. Research also suggests that it could boost your serotonin levels, too - the hormone that helps you to feel more alert and awake - whilst also helping you to fall into a healthier, more natural state of fatigue in the evenings.
Exercises such as running and strength training are particularly recommended but if the thought of venturing outside and exerting energy makes you fills you with dread, opt for something a little more gentle such as yoga or swimming, or make a commitment to do it with a friend.
Nutrition can go a long way to combating low moods and there is plenty of evidence to suggest a link between gut health and mental health exists. Eating more oily fish or other foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids such as eggs and nuts can help to boost brain function so may help to protect against symptoms of SAD. As we don’t get much exposure to sunlight after the Summer months, Vitamin D levels can be boosted by taking a high quality vitamin D3 supplement, and in fact, the NHS recommends that we all consider supplementing during the Winter. Having adequate vitamin and mineral intake is also important to help optimise our brain health, mood, and energy, so make sure you are supporting your health with a balanced diet and incorporate plenty of colourful fruit and vegetables as well as whole grains into your diet.
If you are experiencing symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, we would recommend seeking advice from a medical professional.
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