Q As the evenings draw in and it’s dark when I get up, I notice that my energy levels dip and I want to eat more – usually carbs, which is unlike me – and sleep more. Does this mean that I have seasonal depression? If so, what can I do about it?
A Full-blown seasonal depression affects eight per cent of people in the UK during winter, according to the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA, sada.org.uk). Unlike other forms of depression, ‘people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) tend to sleep more, eat more and gain weight’, explains Dr Norman Rosenthal (normanrosenthal.com), the psychiatrist who first described and named SAD in the 1980s.
Lack of light causes a biochemical imbalance in the hypothalamus in our brain, according to SADA, and this has an impact on a whole range of activities. The effects of SAD can be emotional, physical, mental and cognitive, with symptoms including low mood, increased irritability, fatigue, anxiety, heightened vulnerability to infections, and social problems. These tend to lift in the months of March or April with the return of longer periods of bright light. A further 21 per cent of Brits experience a less serious condition dubbed sub-syndromal SAD, or winter blues, where similar symptoms occur, but the psychological impact is much milder. ‘Many people are not as ebullient in winter. They lose their sparkle and function less effectively,’ says Dr Rosenthal.
One causal effect of less light may be lower serotonin levels in our blood. ‘A compelling study in healthy volunteers in Australia showed that serotonin, the hormone that is linked to wellbeing, is directly correlated with light,’ explains Dr Rosenthal. There may also be a link to oestrogen and progesterone, the female reproductive hormones, he says. Women seem three to four times more likely to be affected by SAD than men.
Being stressed is profoundly implicated in SAD, as it is in any form of depression or anxiety. But the good news, says Dr Rosenthal, is that ‘we can manipulate light and alleviate stress’. His advice is threefold: ‘Use a lightbox for up to an hour in the early morning, take daily physical exercise and meditate.’
You can find more information on light therapy and order lightboxes online at lumie.com. Gentle exercise such as walking or yoga is recommended by SADA. Discover more about mindfulness meditation at bemindful.co.uk or calm.com. Dr Rosenthal suggests Transcendental Meditation (uk.tm.org). In severe cases, sufferers may need professional counselling and medication.
Finally, Dr Rosenthal suggests planning activities that you enjoy and replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. There is more information in his book Winter Blues (Guilford Press, £13.99*).
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