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How to avoid seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

21st January 2020

Many people suffer from low mood from time to time, but if yours is persistent and tied to the winter then you could be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Also known as winter depression, this kind of depression is when the symptoms are usually more (or only) apparent during the winter months.

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are very much the same as any other kind of depression; a persistent low mood, feelings of despair, lacking in energy, sleeping for longer than normal, losing pleasure in everyday activities. You may also notice that you crave more “comfort food” (like carbohydrates) and gain weight as a result.

How to avoid seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

It can mistakenly be referred to as some kind of casual condition (in the same way that OCD often is), but symptoms can be severe and debilitating for sufferers.

The exact cause isn’t known but most experts think that it’s linked to reduced exposure to sunlight. During the winter months, there are fewer daylight hours and the colder weather means that people get outside less. This may stop your hypothalamus from working properly; a part of the brain responsible for melatonin, serotonin and your circadian rhythm.

Because melatonin and your internal body clock (circadian rhythm) rely on sunlight, this is why you can feel tired and lacking in energy if you suffer from SAD. Meanwhile, the effect of a lack of sunlight on your serotonin production is responsible for a change in mood, appetite and sleep.

The first port of call in avoiding symptoms of SAD is to get as much natural sunlight as you can. This can be hard if you work a day job and find that it’s dark when you get there and dark when you leave, but even a quick walk outdoors in your lunch break can make a big difference.

If your lifestyle doesn’t allow for this, or if this still isn’t making enough of a difference then you can try light therapy with a special lamp that mimics sunlight.

It’s also important to exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet and manage your stress levels to minimise symptoms. However, if you’re struggling with depression after making some key lifestyle changes, then there are other treatments available such as counselling or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medication.

Other health dangers of a lack of sunlight

Not only can a lack of sunlight in the winter months contribute to seasonal affective disorder, but it can also lead to a deficiency in vitamin D.

Normally, your body can make its own vitamin D when the skin is exposed to direct sunlight; enough to get your daily recommended amount without having to worry about it.

However, in the winter months, the lack of sunlight and time spent outdoors can lead to a vitamin D deficiency. Because vitamin D is vital in bone health, muscle strength and immune system function, it’s important that your body gets enough.

When sunlight is less readily available, you’re able to get the required level of vitamin D from other sources. Vitamin D3 is found in foods like oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), butter and eggs and you can also get this as a daily supplement.

For those with diagnosed vitamin D deficiency, a prescription-strength vitamin D supplement is available and it’s called Fultium D3.