Seasonal Affective Disorder: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

January 13, 2024
7 mins read

By Jennifer
Roche| With thanks to Tesco Health and Wellbeing

Saturday, December 27, 2014.

Do you feel moody and lethargic in winter? Find
it hard to get out of bed? If so, you could be a victim of the ‘winter blues’
or their more acute cousin, Seasonal Affective Disorder. According to the NHS,
Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD for short) affects about 2 million people
in the UK and over 12 million people in Northern Europe. For some, it’s a mild
condition, but it can be more serious. To help you understand SAD – and beat
the winter blues in any case – we looked at Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms,
causes and what you can do to feel better in winter.

What is SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is
a form of depression that affects many people, mostly in the winter. Milder
forms of SAD are known as the ‘winter blues’ and can affect a person’s mood,
energy levels and mental processes. SAD is often seen as a winter condition but
it can also happen in reverse with some people feeling the effects in
summertime. Let’s look at the symptoms in more detail.

Symptoms of SAD

If you suffer from SAD you are
most likely to feel lethargic, depressed and have low-energy levels – these are
typical of many other forms of depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms
can include any or all of the following:

Low energy levels
Difficulty getting out of
bed in the morning
Decreased concentration
Inability to concentrate on tasks
Loss of libido
Apathy
Irritability
Tearfulness
Anxiety
Craving for carbs and
subsequent weight gain

Do you recognise these
symptoms in yourself or any other member of your family? If so, it’s quite
possible that SAD is the issue. However, as many forms of depression are quite
similar, it’s usually a good idea to see your GP to get a proper diagnosis.

Causes of SAD

It’s not known conclusively
what causes SAD but it has been linked to lack of natural daylight which can
affect our circadian rhythms (or body clock). For those of us in the higher
latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere (or those in the lower latitudes of the
Southern Hemisphere), seeing less daylight in winter and cold, gloomy weather
can contribute to the symptoms of SAD. This is thought to be caused by the
hormones melatonin and seratonin.

Melatonin is the ‘sleep
hormone’ that helps our bodies to sleep and rest at night while seratonin is
the opposite, keeping us awake, alert and energetic. In winter, we tend to get
up before the sunrise: our bodies are still filled with melatonin, making it
difficult for us to ‘rise and shine’. Our modern lifestyles, gloomy weather and
short days all mean that we see less daylight and therefore less seratonin is
produced, dampening your mood and potentially resulting in SAD.

Did you know?: The further you live from the equator, the more
likely you are to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms. Countries
with high incidences of SAD include: Scandinavia, UK, Ireland, Northern Europe,
Northern Asia, Southern parts of Australia and South America.

Beating the winter blues

There are many lifestyle
changes you can make to help you beat the winter blues. Eating healthy and
exercising regularly can be a great help to improving your mood and helping you
to cope with the symptoms. Here are just some of the ways you can help
yourself:

Food

Making changes in your diet
can help to minimize the effects of SAD. By following a healthy diet, you can
reduce the craving for carbs which is one of the typical symptoms of SAD.
Eating foods that are rich in serotonin will also help. Here are some small changes you can make:

Swap simple carbs for
complex carbs. Reduce white bread, potatoes, white rice and pasta and choose brown
bread, sweet potatoes, wild or brown rice, wholegrain pasta and legumes. Grains contain Vitamin B which helps with serotonin production.
Cut down on caffeine. Energy drinks and
tea/coffee can supress the production of serotonin in the body so limit
your intake. If you must drink coffee, keep it until the end of your meal.
Include oils and fats. Foods like fish, nuts
and oils contain essential fatty acids that help with serotonin
production. Always eat these foods in moderate amounts and track them in
your Food Diary
Eat protein foods. Meat, poultry, fish and
eggs all contain Tryptophan, which is essential in the production of
serotonin.
Include dairy products. While not as high as
protein, dairy products such as milk and cheese are also good sources of
Tryptophan. Cottage cheese and yoghurt are particularly high so if you are
watching your weight, these are good low-calorie sources.
Eat dark chocolate. A little dark chocolate
will go a long way to helping with the symptoms of SAD. It contains Resveratrol, which boosts endorphins and serotonin levels.

Include a wide range of
fruit and veg. Choosing a brightly-coloured array of fruit and veg will give you all
the vitamins and minerals you need for good health as well as helping to
combat the effects of SAD. You can track your five-a-day of fruit and veg
in your Tally Tracker on the Food Diary to make sure you are
getting enough.

Want to ensure you’re keeping these mood-boosting foods in your diet? Use
the handy Food Diary to track your intake.

Exercise

Exercise is ideal for reducing
stress and boosting energy levels. This can go a long way towards combating the
symptoms of SAD. Even taking a brisk walk for 15-30 minutes a day, particularly
during daylight hours, can be instrumental in minimizing the feelings of
anxiety and lethargy. Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins and Tryptophan,
that essential ingredient in serotonin production. Tryptophan stays in the
system long after exercise so by being active for only a short time, you can
boost your feel-good levels for hours afterwards.

Make sure to
track your exercise in your Fitness Diary!

Use a sunrise alarm clock

These clocks wake you with
gradually increasing light, which simulates a natural sunrise. This helps your
body to wake naturally, making it easier to greet the day. You can even
download a sunrise app to your phone to make waking on a winter’s morning less
of an ordeal.

Massage

Getting a regular massage can
help you to beat the symptoms of SAD and winter blues. Massage is a natural
cure for stress and helps to stimulate oxytocin, a hormone which reduces the
stress hormone, cortisol and stimulates production of serotonin and the
pleasure hormone, dopamine. You may also find aromatherapy massage a help for
the uplifting effect of the oils. Always consult a qualified aromatherapist for
the best treatment for you.

Track any
treatments or mood-boosting activities in your Wellbeing Diary.

Spend time outdoors

Although the weather is not
always kind in winter, getting enough daylight is essential. Wrap up well and
take a walk during the day whenever you can and track it in your Fitness Diary

Winter sunshine

If you have the time and
money, a winter holiday can give you a much-needed boost of sunshine. That
said, this is only a temporary fix and some people who have returned to dark,
gloomy winter weather have experienced increased symptoms of winter blues and
SAD on their return.

Treating acute symptoms of SAD

If you feel you are suffering
from more than a dose of the winter blues, you could be experiencing Seasonal
Affective Disorder in its more acute form. If you think you are, it’s a good
idea to see your GP to ensure you are not suffering from another illness or
form of depression. If you find you are suffering from acute SAD there are
treatments that can help. Your GP may prescribe medication but it’s always best
to explore other options too. Let’s look at these:

Anti-depressants: If you suffer severely from SAD or have another
form of depression in conjunction with SAD, your GP can give you anti-depressants
to help. These are not a definitive cure but may help alleviate the symptoms of
SAD and boost your mood.

Talking
treatment: Therapies like counselling,
psychotherapy, or Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) can all help you to face
the challenges of SAD with positivity and help you to cope with Seasonal
Affective Disorder symptoms. This kind of therapy can help you establish
positive behaviours and to recognize and eliminate factors that may contribute
to this condition so that you can minimize the effects of SAD in your life.

Light
treatment: Using light therapy or a
light box is a popular form of treatment for those suffering from SAD. It
involves sitting beside a powerful light source that replicates daylight for a
number of hours each day. This helps to stimulate production of serotonin.

Get support

While there are many things
you can do to help yourself if you suffer from SAD, getting support is
important too. Tell your family and friends about this condition and make them
aware of it. This way, they can understand and help on the grey days when SAD
makes its presence felt. You can also join a support group if you feel the
need. Like any other disease or condition, it’s always easier to cope, knowing
you have support and are not alone. Check out our links at the bottom of this
article for more advice and groups that can help.

Useful
sources:

Sad.org.uk

Mind.org.uk

NHS Choices

Bupa.co.uk

Seasonal Affective Disorder: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

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