Does the onset of winter fill you with dread?

Abi Jackson says a good routine can deal with effects of SAD.

Does the onset of winter fill you with dread — because it’s not just the skies that’ll be turning dark and gloomy, but your mood too?

While a touch of winter blues is quite common, full-blown seasonal affective disorder (SAD — a recognised form of clinical depression that occurs as a response to less light exposure during wintertime) is relatively rare and can be majorly debilitating.

The key factor in SAD is the clear seasonal pattern. “We usually find people get symptoms of depression throughout the winter months, but mostly from September to March or April,” says Dr Balu Pitchiah, SAD specialist.

Generally, this means thing like consistent low mood and sense of hopelessness, loss of interest and motivation — but often with the addition of sleeping much more than usual and increased appetite, particularly cravings for “sugary, fatty, carbohydrate-rich foods”.

Stuart Haydock, a clinical psychologist, says people might also “have trouble staying connected to family and friends”.

Pitchiah adds: “Research shows people with SAD have a slightly different sensitivity to light, [so] they’re predisposed to developing it.”

That said, whether you have full-blown SAD or merely a touch of winter blues, there are lots of things that can help — and there is no need to battle on alone.

Struggling with any symptoms of depression, but not sure whether it’s full SAD? Pitchiah says: “It’s always useful to have a conversation with your doctor.”

SAD treatment options can include antidepressants and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT is one of the most successful talking therapies for depression and may help someone manage their SAD symptoms. It may even stop the symptoms coming back each year,” says Haydock.

Other drug-free depression treatments, such as rTMS (Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation), may be an option for some people — and of course, light therapy can be hugely helpful. “Light boxes can be a very powerful and easy intervention. About 30 minutes to an hour daily,” says Pitchiah, who suggests using them earlier on in the day, as some people struggle to sleep after using them in the evening.

The power of behavioural habits shouldn’t be underestimated, however. Pitchiah says there are three main things they normally recommend — sticking to a good routine, diet and physical activity.

“When people with SAD get their symptoms, they tend to sleep more and can’t stick to routine. But the first thing [we say is], it’s really important to stick to your routine.”

GP Sarah Brewer says don’t forget about vitamin D — the ‘sunshine vitamin’.

“Vitamin D is important for mood, and low levels during winter, when daylight hours are reduced, may contribute to SAD. While you can obtain vitamin D in your diet from foods such as oily fish, fortified margarine, eggs, butter and fortified milk, most of us need a vitamin D supplement during autumn and winter months.

“The suggested dose to avoid deficiency is 10mcg, but if you have SAD, a higher dose may be needed, although this has not yet been confirmed in clinical trials,” Brewer explains. “The upper safe level for long-term use from supplements is 100mcg per day.”


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