It’s cold, dark, Christmas is over – no wonder many of us experience the winter blues at this time of year. Your body is telling you to slow down, hide under the covers, conserve energy and hibernate until spring.
For others, however, it is more serious. As a GP, I see a lot of people with depression and I suspect many suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This affects as many as one in 15 people in the UK between September and April. Short gloomy days sap their energy. The gloom seeps into their core. The onset of the long dark winter nights can be a thing of dread. The body’s solar power is failing.
While there is no definitive test for SAD, sufferers typically experience sleep diffculties, become anxious, irritable and withdrawn, have trouble concentrating, crave carbohydrates, gain weight and slide into depression. Some feel an overwhelming sense of pointlessness or guilt. If these symptoms sound familiar and you are struggling to cope, please do consider seeing your GP.
For most people, however, simply getting out when it is bright – especially in the morning and around midday, ideally combined with a bit of exercise – is enough to lift their mood and energy levels. The daylight works by suppressing the body’s production of melatonin – the hormone that makes you feel sleepy – helping you to feel more alert and energised. Along with increasing levels of serotonin – known as the ‘happy’ chemical – daylight can also improve activity levels, sleep patterns, mood and motivation.
But what if you just can’t get enough natural light in winter? Light therapy, like daylight, can help to reprogramme the brain. It involves sitting near a ‘daylight mimicking’ lamp, which provides at least ten times the amount of light of a household bulb. To see if this therapy would have an energising effect on me I ordered a light box. However, while I enjoyed the lift from the extra light, before I had a real chance to bask in its glow, my daughter took it to brighten her room and cheer her up while she revised.
Other options for those struggling with winter’s short, dark days include dawn stimulation alarm clocks, which gently increase the light as you wake, and cognitive behavioural therapy, which focuses on strategies to redress negative thought patterns and improve mood. Referral is via your GP or by contacting your local psychological therapies services. Practising mindfulness can also be effective in helping to reduce stress and the tendency to ruminate about worries (try the Headspace app).
Low levels of vitamin D, which is produced in the skin through exposure to sunlight, may also contribute to feeling low, so as well as getting out in the day, eat more foods rich in vitamin D such as tuna, salmon, eggs and cheese. Cod liver oil or vitamin D supplements are also an option, particularly if you have darker skin.
However, if symptoms are affecting your ability to function, you no longer enjoy the things you used to and you feel down much of the time, it is important to see your GP who may recommend serotonin-based antidepressants.
A gene linked to SAD has recently been found that may spur on new treatments. In the meantime, if you are su ering from the lack of sunlight, nd out which strategies work for you and remember that the sun will be shining again soon(ish).
Remember, a dog is for (long) life
Our spaniel Tari loves nothing more than curling up on our laps. We love her dearly, and these feelings are, presumably, reciprocated.
Why are people like us so dog crazy? Well, there are good reasons for having a dog, which go far beyond companionship. Research has shown that owning a dog has a calming effect on us, reducing stress and, for some, improving mental health. Dog owners also have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke as well as a reduced risk of death from other causes. this is probably because having a dog makes you more active.
If that wasn’t enough, there is evidence that owning a dog can protect young children from developing allergies later in life.
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