As Autumn rolls around do you find your moods drop along with the leaves from the trees? If you feel you suffer from the winter blues, you may have a mood disorder known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Symptoms are similar to depression but only affect people during a certain period of the year, usually the colder months.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
People affected by this condition often report feeling moody and having low energy levels in autumn and winter.
While not everyone experiences the same symptoms, you may feel sad, empty, helpless, irritable, worthless, restless or pessimistic.
Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center in the US have stated it is more than feeling gloomy in the winter, and say it is a subtype of major depression.
This means you may experience a loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy and have trouble concentrating or remembering details. Some people have food cravings, particularly for carbohydrates, and put weight on during the cooler months.
However, during the spring and summer months you might notice that the signs of depression have lifted and you feel sprightly with good mental health.
While some may only have mild symptoms, this condition can affect relationships and its effects can be debilitating.
Who is affected?
More women than men experience the symptoms of SAD and more incidences of SAD are found in those who live further from the equator. In fact it's believed to affect around four times the number of women than men.
It is also more common in those between the ages of 15 – 55.
What causes SAD?
Experts believe there may be a link between sunlight and SAD as it has the potential to interfere with your biological clock. This is also known as your circadian rhythms and impacts your sleep-wake cycle.
So it may not be those cold temperatures affecting your moods but the lack of sunlight. This is why it affects people at latitudes of 30 degrees or more north or south of the equator, and is rare in the tropics.
It may also cause problems with serotonin, a brain chemical affecting your moods. It has a soothing and calming affect.
However, a study from the University of Virginia has revealed SAD may be linked to a genetic mutation that makes the eye less sensitive to light.
“These individuals may require brighter light levels to maintain normal functioning during the winter months,” said lead author and Professor of biology at the University of biology, Ignacio Provencio.
How is SAD treated?
Light boxes are often used to treat SAD. These emit high intensities of light similar to the sun’s natural rays. It is best to use these in the early morning to get the most benefit.
You should aim to spend somewhere between 30 minutes and two hours in a light box. Some research suggests this can reduce symptoms after only two weeks.
Some people may also benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to reduce feelings of depression and alleviate moods.
Exercise may also be of some benefit as it can improve mood, reduce stress and help reduce the depressive feelings felt in the winter. For best results, see if you can head outdoors for a walk as you may get some relief from the outdoor light even on a cloudy or overcast day.
It is also highly important you maintain contact with friends and family as good social networks are essential in helping those affected by mood disorders.
Getting the right amount of sleep may also help and you could consider setting a regular bedtime and waking up at the same time each day as this can keep your melatonin levels steady.
A well-balanced diet is also a must during the winter months, even though you may face carbohydrate cravings. This will ensure you have the right minerals and nutrients to provide you with energy throughout the day.
As vitamin D is released from exposure to sunlight, it may also be beneficial to top up you levels with a Vitamin D supplement during the winter.
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