Although most people do get a bit dismal during the winter months, SAD is an actual mental disorder that can mimic the exact symptoms and behaviours that other Anxiety Disorders and Depression do.
Being South African, where the sun shines most of the time, even in the winter, and now living in the UK, I can say I have definitely noticed how the season change dramatically alters. We go into a daylight savings mode, which we never did in Africa and in the peak of winter, it gets dark by 3:30pm. So it is quite clear to see that SAD would be more common in countries like the UK.
What causes SAD?
- Low serotonin levels - The hormone serotonin is reduced when there is a lack of natural light. Serotonin is the hormone that makes us feel happy and calm.
- Increased melatonin levels - This hormone is stimulated by darkness, which gets us ready for sleep. Due to the shorter and darker days, melatonin is increased, resulting in us feeling sleepy.
- Body Clock Interference - This is known as circadian rhythm meaning that our body's are tuned into going to bed and waking up at a specific time because light helps us to wake up and dark helps us to go to sleep. In winter, natural light is decreased and our body clocks tend to get confused. If the sun is going down at 4pm, you will immediately feel like it's time to go to bed - when in fact it's only late afternoon.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
- Mood Changes
- Sleeping more often and longer
- Appetite changes
- Loss in hobbies
- Weight Gain
- More prone to illnesses such as colds and flu
- Loss of libido
I think I may have SAD, what should I do?
There are a few things that you can do to cope with SAD.
- Get out into natural light. Even if the sun isn't shining - being out in some natural light and fresh air can still help to alter the hormones which control your mood.
- Consider getting a light box. These contain a bright lamp that mimics natural sunlight which again will help to alter your mood. These lights are not like ordinary lamps. Their intensity is said to be 10 times stronger than a normal lamp.
- Consider getting away - perhaps to a holiday home that is a bit warmer than where you live. It may seem a bit drastic, but there are people who have holiday homes in other parts of the world and retreat there during winter months.
- Open all the curtains and blinds in your home and try to make use of lighter rooms or areas in your home.
- Keep yourself warm. Sometimes if I am not warm enough, it makes me even more irritable. So make sure you wear warm clothes and that you have enough warm blankets when you go to sleep at night. Eating and drinking lots of warm foods will also help keep that extra irritation at bay.
- Keep busy. Keeping yourself busy will help to distract you by preventing you from moping about on the couch. If you keeping actively busy, it will also keep you warm!
- We tend to eat more in the winter, so again, make sure you keep yourself warmly dressed and eat a healthy diet to prevent binge eating.
Shedding light on vitamin D
Vitamin D is made by our bodies when our skin absorbs sunlight. Contrary to all the hype about the sun and skin cancer, every living thing needs a bit of sunlight to survive. We should be getting 20 minutes in the sunshine everyday in order for us to have adequate vitamin D. The winter months concern me because in England, where I live, the sunlight is significantly reduced and as an anxiety sufferer, vitamin D is a vital component for the proper absorption of calcium and magnesium - two very important anti stress minerals.
Getting enough Vitamin D in the winter months
Even if it is sunny outside on a winters day, no one wants to spend time outdoors as it's just too cold, so how do we make sure we are getting enough vitamin D during the cold months? Although it is important to remember that the sun is the optimal choice for maximum vitamin D absorption, we still have a couple of catch nets to help us get by in the winter:
- Take a vitamin D supplement. If you are concerned that your vitamin D is low, get a doctor to test you.
- Eat foods with traces of vitamin D in them such as mushrooms and fortified foods such as cereals.
Hopefully by being armed with information, we can all get through the winter months with a bit more ease. Remember that's it's okay to have bad days and it's even more okay to talk about what you are feeling. Keep in mind that there are many support help lines who will always lend an ear to whoever needs them.