According to the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (www.sada.org.uk), winter depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a condition which affects 20% of the UK adult population. As our energy levels undergo a gradual change from summer to autumn. Dark, chilly mornings make it harder to get out of bed, and it’s common to feel more lethargic and crave comforting foods as we adjust to the change in seasons.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
The symptoms of SAD can mimic those of clinical depression. SAD is usually diagnosed when a person suffers symptoms of depression for 2 or more consecutive years during the winter months. Symptoms include a depressed mood, irritability, too much or too little sleep, too much or too little eating, increased feelings of fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, brain fog, and in extreme cases thoughts of death.
Symptoms range from very mild to severe. For about 20% of the UK population, mildly debilitating symptoms of SAD cause discomfort but not serious suffering. This is called "Sub-syndromal SAD" or "Winter Blues". For about 2% of people, SAD is a seriously disabling illness which prevents them from functioning normally without treatment.
What causes SAD?
SAD is more prevalent in northern latitudes where the amount of sunlight is low during winter months, this is because seasonal mood changes are believed to be related to the amount of sunlight we are exposed to. Skin exposed to sunlight begins a reaction that leads to the formation of Vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to depressed mood, poor calcium absorption or even osteoporosis.
Testing kits for Vitamin D deficiency can be obtained easily from your local pharmacy and involve pricking your finger and sending off the blood sample to be tested.
Natural Supplements for SAD
- Vitamin D: if your Vitamin D is low due to a lack of exposure to sunlight, a Vitamin D supplement can help combat this deficiency.
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids: one of the main essential fatty acids in fish oil is DHA. DHA is present in high quantities in the brain and is necessary to help promote normal function of neurotransmitters.
- 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan): 5-HTP is a precursor to Serotonin. It may be helpful to improving Serotonin secretion when taken during the day. Serotonin is a precursor to Melatonin.
- St. John’s Wort: with a long history of use, SJW works well for many people in helping to improve symptoms of SAD.
- Melatonin: Melatonin supplementation may improve SAD. It will increase brain melatonin and suppress cortisol secretion. Melatonin is best taken at night when levels are naturally elevated. At present melatonin is a prescription only drug in the UK.
Always consult your doctor before taking any supplements alongside any medication e.g. St John's Wort is known to interfere with the effectiveness of some contraceptive pills.
Other treatments for SAD
Standard lighting in your household or office will get you only around 500 LUX which is not enough to combat the effects of winter darkness. Light Therapy is a treatment that encourages exposure to 2,500-10,000 LUX for at least 30 minutes per day. You can purchase light boxes easily on the internet - make sure you get one medically proven to treat SAD.
Try a light alarm clock which slowly gets brighter, simulating the rising of the sun.
Get plenty of exercise which can help help combat the low feeling of SAD. Often symptoms can be significantly improved or even stopped by exercise and increased outdoor activity, particularly on sunny days.
Get plenty of good sleep and try to go to bed and rise at or around the same time each day. Not only does this help to normalise your body's melatonin production, but it also gives your body sufficient time to rest, relax and rejuvenate.
Try to ensure your diet contains lots of fish, fruit and vegetables, drink enough water, eliminate refined and processed foods, and have a diet with a low level of saturated fat.
A healthy balanced diet is the best way to consume all the nutrients we need. Sometimes however this isn't possible and then supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying any supplements or herbal medicines.