There is definitely a chill in the air, which means Autumn is on the way. Soon all the leaves on the trees will start turning orange and we’ll have an excuse to cuddle up by the fire again. But the colder months aren’t hot chocolate, mittens and good moods for everyone. Some individuals experience seasonal changes in terms of their moods, wellbeing and behaviours such as sleep and appetite. So what’s to blame?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). People who suffer from SAD experience mood changes and symptoms similar to depression but are unique in the sense that symptoms are worse during colder months and then alleviated by the coming of spring. Studies show that during Autumn and Winter about 20% of the population is affected by fatigue, irritability, anxiety, weight gain, social withdrawal and a lack of alertness. Some individuals experience sub-syndromal SAD, which is a less severe form of SAD and more commonly known as the Winter Blues. While the exact causes of SAD have not yet been determined, a genetic component has been identified. So SAD often runs in families. SAD also seems to have a disproportional effect on women as one study found that women between 20 and 40 years of age are twice as likely to experience difficulties associated with SAD. Recent studies have also found that there might be a specific link between ADHD and SAD, with one study finding that individuals with ADHD are almost 4 times as likely to suffer from SAD as well.
WHY SO SAD?
Many experts believe that the occurrence of SAD is due to limited sunlight exposure in the winter when nights are longer and days are shorter. This is partly due to an increased prevalence of SAD found in countries further away from the equator, where nights can be especially long during winter months.
It has been suggested that shorter daylight hours and less sunlight exposure during winter causes shifts in terms of our circadian rhythms or our body’s internal clock, which influences the regulation of several biological processes.
SEROTONIN AND SAD
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and hormone involved in the regulation of processes such as mood, sleep and appetite. Individuals suffering from SAD may present with lower levels of serotonin which effects the transmission of messages relayed in the brain and contribute to the experience of depression. Melatonin is a hormone that our bodies produces when it is dark in order to make us feel sleepy and promote sleep. During the winter, some individuals produce higher levels of melatonin than necessary which contributes to the experience of symptoms related to SAD such as low levels of energy and sleepiness.
Many people believe that SAD refers to the experience of depression during winter months, usually starting in autumn and ending when spring starts. In most cases, symptoms can start off quite mild and increase in severity as the season progresses.
- Negative thoughts and feelings most of the time
- Some individuals can experience severe depression and some may even go on to experience symptoms associated with bipolar disorder
- Increased feelings of lethargy, disturbed sleep patterns or narcolepsy symptoms.
- Overeating and an increased need for foods containing high amounts of sugar and carbohydrates
- Memory and concentration difficulties
- Lack of interest in social activities and/ or activities that were once pleasurable
TREATMENT FOR SAD
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or psychotherapy
- Light therapy which involves sitting in front of a light therapy box that emits a bright light for 30 minutes or more a day during the winter.
TIPS FOR DEALING WITH SAD
- Maximise your exposure to sunlight by getting outside more, making your home brighter and getting up early to take advantage of as much daylight as possible
- Exercise helps to promote an increase in the body’s production of melatonin and serotonin
- Eat well to give your body it needs to produce serotonin. Avoid foods high in sugar as such products often lack nutritional content and can influence your appetite for healthy foods
- Take medication as prescribed by your doctor
- Don’t try to cope alone. Spend time with friends and family who can help and support you
- If you continue to experience symptoms and it is significantly impacting on your daily functioning consult your medical doctor as soon as possible