How to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

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Do you notice yourself getting a little down or does your mood shift when the darker nights draw in? How about during this summer in the UK?!

You may have heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and how it can affect many people, mainly in the winter months. However, after our grey and extremely damp UK summer, the so-called “winter blues” have crept up into our summer months. In fact, between May and August this year, the search term: “summer depression” rose by 450% on Google, peaking in mid-July, when the UK experienced the sixth wettest July on record. 

The NHS records that 2 million people in the UK and 12 million people across northern Europe are affected by SAD. It isn’t just the “winter blues” — it can be more serious than that. According to Sarah Jarvis, the Jeremy Vine Show doctor, winter blues often involves a lack of sleep while SAD means people are permanently tired and spend longer in bed.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

The term “Seasonal affective disorder” (SAD), coined by psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal in 1984, describes a type of depression with a seasonal pattern, typically occurring during winter due to a lack of light. It can have a profound effect on both the body and the brain. It is thought that shorter days and less daylight can trigger a chemical change in the brain leading to symptoms of depression.

What Are The Causes Of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

While the exact causes of SAD are not fully understood, it is believed to be the result of a combination of several factors, including:

Circadian Rhythms: The reduced exposure to natural daylight during winter can disrupt the body’s internal biological clock, known as circadian rhythms. This disruption can lead to changes in the production of hormones and neurotransmitters, contributing to the symptoms of SAD. You can find out what is the circadian rhythm in our blog and how light can affect your sleep. This disruption can also impact the sleep-wake cycle, leading to irregular sleep patterns and difficulties waking up in the morning. It can also affect body temperature regulation and hormone production.

Imbalance in Serotonin Levels: Reduced exposure to sunlight can also lead to a drop in serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain that plays a key role in regulating mood and emotional well-being. Low levels of serotonin are often associated with depression and can lead to feelings of sadness, irritability and a generally low mood, which are common symptoms of SAD. This imbalance in serotonin levels can influence emotional states and may contribute to the development of the disorder.

Elevated Melatonin Levels: Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles. Its levels increase in response to darkness and decrease with exposure to light. Therefore, reduced exposure to natural light during autumn and winter can disrupt the normal pattern of melatonin production. Elevated melatonin levels during daylight hours lead to daytime drowsiness, fatigue and a general lack of energy, which are common SAD symptoms. This can make it difficult to engage in daily activities and maintain a positive mood.

Genetics: Research shows that your risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder can be higher if your family has a history of mood disorders like depression. If your parents or siblings have experienced these conditions, it may increase your chances of developing SAD.

Environmental Factors: Geographic location plays a significant role. SAD is more common in areas farther from the equator where there are shorter daylight hours during the winter. The lack of sunlight in these regions can increase the risk of developing SAD.

Vitamin D Deficiency: Reduced sun exposure during the winter months can lead to lower levels of vitamin D. Some research suggests that vitamin D may be involved in mood regulation, and a deficiency may contribute to SAD symptoms.

Vitamin D And Seasonal Affective Disorder

Why is vitamin D so important? Vitamin D plays a crucial role in our mental health and mood regulation for several reasons:

Neurotransmitter Production: Vitamin D is involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, in the brain. As we mentioned earlier, serotonin contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness. Low levels of serotonin are associated with conditions like SAD and having sufficient vitamin D can help maintain healthy serotonin levels.

Circadian Rhythm Regulation: Vitamin D may influence the body’s circadian rhythms, which are responsible for regulating sleep-wake cycles and mood. Disruptions in circadian rhythms, such as darker days, have been linked to mood disorders, including Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Adequate vitamin D levels can help stabilise these rhythms.

Neuroprotection: Vitamin D has neuroprotective effects, which means it can help protect and support the health of brain cells. This is important because some mood disorders, like depression, are associated with changes in brain structure and function. Vitamin D may help counteract these changes.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): As previously discussed, SAD is a form of depression that occurs seasonally, often during the winter months when sunlight exposure is reduced. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to SAD and supplementation can be an effective treatment to alleviate symptoms.

Immune System Support: Vitamin D also plays a role in immune system function. A strong immune system can help protect the body against infections and illnesses, which can have a significant impact on mood. When you’re physically unwell, it can often affect your mental well-being.

What Are the Symptoms Of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD is believed to be linked to a lack of sunlight, which affects our circadian rhythms, serotonin levels and melatonin production. This hormonal and chemical imbalance can result in a range of symptoms, including:

  • Persistent low mood and feelings of sadness and hopelessness
  • Fatigue, low energy and daytime drowsiness
  • Overeating, especially with cravings for carbohydrates
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Social withdrawal
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Irritability and anxiety

Does Seasonal Affective Disorder Affect Sleep? 

Seasonal Affective Disorder SAD can have a significant impact on sleep patterns. The lack of exposure to natural light, particularly during the winter months, can disrupt the body’s internal clock and the production of key hormones, leading to sleep disturbances. Here are some ways SAD can affect your sleep:

Insomnia: People with SAD may experience difficulty falling asleep (onset insomnia) or staying asleep (maintenance insomnia). This can be related to the disruption of circadian rhythms caused by reduced exposure to natural light, which plays a role in regulating the sleep-wake cycle.

Hypersomnia: On the other hand, some individuals with SAD may experience excessive daytime sleepiness or hypersomnia. They may find themselves needing to sleep longer than usual, struggling to wake up in the morning or feeling constantly fatigued.

Irregular sleep patterns: SAD can lead to irregular sleep patterns, with some individuals oversleeping during the winter months and then experiencing difficulty sleeping during the summer when their symptoms improve. This fluctuation in sleep can disrupt one’s overall sleep schedule.

Changes in sleep quality: SAD can also lead to changes in the quality of sleep. Individuals may find that they have restless or disrupted sleep, experience vivid and disturbing dreams or wake up feeling unrefreshed.

Increased nighttime eating and carbohydrate cravings: SAD is often associated with cravings for carbohydrates and sugary foods, which can lead to overeating during the evening or night. These eating patterns can further disrupt sleep as they may cause discomfort or lead to weight gain.

There are some ways to manage any sleep issues caused by Seasonal Affective Disorder, such as:

Light therapy: Light therapy, which involves exposure to bright artificial light, is a common treatment for SAD. It can help regulate the body’s internal clock and improve sleep patterns by simulating natural daylight. This article explains that “in the northern Swedish city of Umea, an energy company installed phototherapy lights in bus shelters to help residents cope with the darkness of winter. The Norwegian town of Rjukan, surrounded by mountains, erected giant mirrors to redirect sunlight onto the main square.”

Sun lamps: These devices are great for gradually increasing the intensity of light in the morning to mimic a natural sunrise, helping to wake you more gently and improve your sleep-wake cycle.

Lifestyle adjustments: Maintaining a regular sleep schedule, staying physically active and managing stress through relaxation techniques, like Sophrology, can also be beneficial in managing SAD-related sleep issues.

Sophrology: When we regularly practise Sophrology, we use simple modalities such as breathing, visualisation, movement and relaxation that positively impact our physiology and autonomic nervous system. We become aware of the present moment, learn to let go of negative thoughts and emotions, learn how to respond to stressful situations and instantly relax both body and mind, which is the key to restful sleep. In our 10-mins to Sleep Like a Pro online course, you learn how to positively reprogram your body and mind for sleep and begin to build healthy sleeping habits into your nighttime routine to be better equipped to fall asleep, even in the darker months.

Sleep Like a Pro
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5 Tips For Seasonal Affective Disorder

The good news is that there are various supports for seasonal affective disorder to allow you to embrace the coming winter months with more resilience and positivity. Here are some possible coping strategies:

  1. Boost Vitamin D: The lack of sunlight during the winter months can lead to Vitamin D deficiency. In fact, in July 2023, the UK saw 81% of its average hours of sunshine, while Wales and Northern Ireland both saw just 70%. You can consider adding Vitamin D supplements to your daily routine, especially if you’re not getting enough sun exposure.
  2. Get Outside: Even on cloudy days, outdoor exposure to natural light can help improve mood and energy levels. So, make an effort to spend time outdoors and get moving when you can, even during the winter.
  3. Sophrology: 10 minutes a day of Sophrology can be used as a complementary approach to supporting the symptoms of SAD and addressing the emotional and psychological aspects. Relaxation can help you manage stress and anxiety, whereas learning self-awareness allows you to be in tune with your body and emotions to feel more in control of them.
  4. Synchronise Your Body with Light: Try to maintain a consistent daily schedule, including regular mealtimes and exercise. Exposure to natural light in the morning can help reset your internal body clock.
  5. Healthy Eating: Incorporate seasonal, nutrient-rich foods into your diet. Fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and omega-3 fatty acids can support your mental and physical health.

SAD can be challenging, but it’s essential to remember that you’re not alone. Reach out to friends, family or a mental health professional if you’re struggling. The transition into winter can be a daunting one, but with the right tools and mindset, it can also be a time of self-discovery and personal growth.

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