Do you feel gloomy on a cloudy day and glum during the winter months?
I know I can. Luckily, for some of us our ‘winter blues’ can be mild and manageable. Unfortunately for many others the suffering can be widespread and sometimes debilitating, leaving you feeling depressed, with reduced energy and melancholy on most days during the season.
It’s called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the Mayo Clinic Family Health Book (5th Edition) describes it as a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. These symptoms are often resolved during the spring and summer months.
Harvard Medical School explains that in both the northern and southern regions of the world, winter means shorter days and longer nights. This seasonal shift, and the lack of sunlight that goes along with it, can trigger a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) sapping your energy and making you feel moody.
People with SAD can begin to experience sadness, depression, and fatigue in mid to late autumn and the symptoms generally fade away in the spring.
Harvard Medical School further explains that light affects the activity of serotonin in the brain, the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood. As sunlight starts to diminish in autumn, the body begins to produce more of a protein called SERT (serotonin-reuptake transporter). Higher levels of SERT lead to reduced serotonin activity, ultimately causing depression. On the flip side, summer sun boosts serotonin activity by keeping SERT protein levels in the brain low.
Women tend to develop SAD more than men. The condition often begins in our thirties or forties; however, some children can show signs of it too.
Some symptoms of winter-onset SAD sometimes called winter depression.
- Feeling apathetic and down for most of the day, nearly every day
- Losing interest in favourite activities
- Over sleeping, finding it hard to wake up
- Feeling lethargic and lacking energy
- Craving sugar and carbohydrates, overeating and weight gain
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling downhearted, remorseful or of no value
- Having thoughts of not wanting to live
- Feeling agitated or anxious
- Increased irritability
Start with a visit to your GP
Many Australians report that they feel flat and lackluster in winter. If you have any of the symptoms above that don’t go away and they are affecting your everyday life, it’s important to see a doctor.
Your GP or medical practitioner will help you differentiate this condition from any other type of depression or illnesses with similar symptoms.
SAD is more common than you think.
If you think you might be suffering from the effects of SAD you’re definitely not alone.
A systematic review of the significant Seasonal Affective Disorder studies conducted by an international psychiatric journal and published by the National Library of Medicine reveals SAD to be a fairly common disorder.
According to this milestone review, completed in 2000, SAD was found to be present in as high as 9.7 percent of certain populations around the world.
In the US, specialists put the amount of people dealing with true Seasonal Affective Disorder to be at least 10 million, with millions more, possibly as many as 10 to 20 percent of the population, experiencing a milder form of SAD depression, better known as ‘the winter blues.’
Understandably, SAD is extremely rare in countries that lie closer to the equator where the sun shines brightly year round and the degree of available light is relatively constant.
McCrindle Research published the results of a study they conducted on the real impact the ‘winter blues’ is having in Australia.
This July 2015 research took the symptoms and triggers of SAD and tested them among a sample of more than 1,000 Australians and found that the impacts of winter are indeed affecting Australians.
Here’s an overview of the amazing results from McCrindle Research;
In a nutshell, winter makes us over-sleep, over-eat and become less social.
How to treat SAD
Beyond Blue has a few easy tips to help treat SAD;
- Make your house as light as possible during autumn and winter and sit close to windows as often as you can.
- Get outside as much as possible and exercise regularly, both will help to lift your mood and reduce any symptoms of SAD.
- Some people turn to ‘sun lamps’ to cope with symptoms of depression. These ‘sun lamps’ filter out harmful UV rays, and act as natural outdoor lighting.
It’s known as bright light therapy or phototherapy. Being exposed to a bright light coming from a special light box for 30 minutes a day can help you to feel much better after only a few days.
- Ask your doctor about other SAD treatments that can also help, including medicines, vitamin D supplements, or counselling.
Some people find that increasing their exposure to natural sunlight helps reduce some of their SAD symptoms. You too might find it helpful to spend more time outside in the sun during these months, however, don’t forget that in Australia sun exposure can increase your risk of skin cancer, so it’s best to ask your GP what would be the best treatment for you.
Beyond Blue advises that complications may occur if SAD is left untreated and could lead to social withdrawal and in some cases drug or substance abuse.
What else helps to prevent SAD?
- Follow a healthy, nutritious diet
- Monitor your mood and energy levels
- Take adequate rest
- Learn to manage stress
- Avoid alcohol
- Try and connect with people to avoid loneliness
Foods to eat:
- Vitamin D rich foods: fatty fish including salmon, tuna, sardines, rainbow trout, fish oil, as well as fortified milk, egg yolk
- Omega 3 fatty acids: oily, fatty fish such as mackerel, herring, salmon, sardines, anchovies, along with flaxseed, hemp, canola, and walnut oils
- Berries: blueberries, raspberries, strawberries
- Folic acid rich foods: leafy greens, oatmeal, sunflower seeds, oranges, fortified cereals, lentils, black-eyed peas, and soybeans
Foods to avoid:
- Sugary foods
If the colder weather triggers a sense of dread in you and all you want to do is hibernate under the covers until spring arrives, then I hope some of the tips and advice I’ve garnered from the experts above will help you to overcome SAD.
If this topic has raised any issues for you and you wish to seek professional help, please start with your GP.
Or if you need immediate crisis help contact Lifeline on 13 11 14
For general mental health support contact:
- Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
- SANE Australia on 1800 187 263
Stay strong and safe…cheers susie
Susie Elelman AM
Author, TV & Radio Broadcaster