What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a complex depressive illness – also known as ‘winter depression.’ Essentially, it’s a form of depression that starts in autumn, lasts through winter and disappears in spring. While it is not properly understood, it is thought that light levels can affect your body clock and that the lack of sunlight in the darker months changes the balance of melatonin and serotonin hormones in our bodies, disrupting the regulation of our mood, appetite and sleep. 

The more you stay in in the winter months the more likely you are to suffer from SAD, which suggests that lockdown and shielding may increase the impact, but there are things you can do to look after yourself and mitigate the symptoms.

Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms to look out for

This disruption to our hormones and sleep cycle can cause depression, lack of energy, lack of concentration, overeating leading to weight gain, a loss of libido and sudden mood changes, some people even experience hypomania (overactivity) in the spring.

You may have SAD if:

  • You are struggling to get out of bed or to do your usual routine
  • You no longer enjoy activities you normally enjoy
  • You crave carbohydrates, fatty foods or sweets
  • You have no energy
  • You can’t sleep
  • You have lost your sense of time
  • These symptoms appear in autumn/winter and disappear in spring

If this sounds familiar then it is important to get a proper diagnosis, so talk to your GP or healthcare professional. If you notice a change in your partner or friends urge them to seek medical help too.

Seasonal Affective Disorder treatments

 


Often SAD is treated like other forms of depression and your GP or healthcare professional will be able to diagnose the right treatment for you. In severe cases this may take the form of behavioural therapies such as CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) or medication like antidepressants. As a first step however you may be asked to try lifestyle changes or alternative remedies to improve your melatonin and serotonin levels naturally. Alternative remedies include lightbox therapy, where you bathe yourself in light for 30 minutes every morning. Your light box should have a 10,000 lux exposure. (Lux measures light intensity – to give you an idea, a bright summer’s day is at least 50,000 lux.) Some people also find sunrise alarm clocks helpful.

Your GP might recommend:

  • Therapy like CBT
  • Antidepressants 
  • A SAD light therapy box
  • Lifestyle changes 

You can find information on treatments on the NHS website

Lifestyle changes to try now

Make the most of the available daylight

Despite the pandemic restrictions and the chill, try to get outside in daylight at least once a day, whether that’s a walk to the local shops, a stroll around the park with a friend or pottering around in an allotment or garden. Green spaces are known to be good for mental health so wrap up warm, fill a thermos with hot tea and make the most of them. Take a look at our top five winter walks for a bit of inspiration.

If you can’t make it outside then get as much light as possible into your home and sit by the window – read our tips on attracting birds to enjoy a natural mood lift from a spot of indoor birdwatching.

 
Make time to exercise daily

It may feel like a chore, but exercise is the best natural mood booster, releasing endorphins as well as improving your levels of health and fitness. 

For the reasons mentioned above, exercising outside in daylight is particularly beneficial. Can you incorporate a brisk walk, run or cycle into your routine? Running programmes like the NHS couch to 5K  are great for novices, but a 10 minute walk around the block is definitely better than nothing.  

Exercising indoors is still a fantastic option, you may not get much daylight, but you’ll benefit from flexibility and variety.  Go online for a world of opportunities 
from yoga to dancercise.

  • Try yoga with Adriene Mishler, this charming Texan offers something for all abilities and goals from weight-loss to stress management.
  • Lockdown superstar and all-round nice guy, Joe Wicks, is a good bet for short sharp intense workouts, and it’s not just for kids. See his sessions for seniors here.
  • Or how about Dance with Deepti?  Have fun dancing yourself to fitness, Bollywood style!
 

Be Sociable

Socialising gives you a sense of purpose and often a new perspective on the world. Make sure you make the time to keep in touch with friends and family - face to face (safely) or via telephone, video calls or social media. Hobbies are a fantastic way to boost your social circle, from sports clubs to book clubs, history clubs to knitting clubs, you’re bound to find something local or online that piques your interest. 

Volunteering is another brilliant way to boost your mental health while doing something worthwhile. 

And if you want to combine the benefits of meeting new people, exercise and an incentive get outdoors more, consider a four-legged friend. Read our guide to the best dogs for retirement here.

Did you know? 83% of McCarthy Stone homeowners experience a sense of community in their new retirement property. Find out more about our friendly communities.

 Eat well without dieting

If SAD, or winter blues are making you crave comfort foods don’t be tempted to crash diet. Instead fill up on wholesome, healthy, but delicious and still comforting foods like this veggie stew with cheesy dumplings or this chickpea curry. And don’t banish sweet treats altogether – a little bit of dark chocolate or even a small glass of red wine now and again are thought to be good for you. Read up on five super healthy seasonal winter foods here

And if you are finding it hard to nod off at night try our 10 tips for a good nights sleep.

Ask for help

Most of all if you're feeling the effects of SAD or just a bit low make sure you talk about it with a friend, medical professional or expert. 

These websites provide further help and advice as well as information on how to find people to talk to. 

www.anxietyuk.org.uk

www.thecalmzone.net

www.menshealthforum.org.uk

www.mind.org.uk

www.samaritans.org.uk

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