After the festive celebrations are over, January can feel like such a difficult month and bright summer days feel such a long way away.
Everything can feel like it happens in the dark and it can feel like there are simply not enough hours in the day. It can be a real struggle to get up in the morning when it is still dark and we usually return home from work in the dark too, which can feel relentless as we progress through the winter months.
Feeling a little low about all of this is normal, however, some people can experience prolonged low mood during the winter months, and this is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Although sometimes trivialised, SAD is a recognised mood disorder that can cause significant distress and disruption to daily life.
It is characterised by depressive symptoms that occur at a specific time of year (usually autumn/winter) with full remission at other times of year (usually spring/summer). This can mean people experiencing SAD may have symptoms for almost half the year, hugely impacting wellbeing.
Signs and symptoms of SAD include:
a persistent low mood
reduced interest in normal everyday activities
Feelings of despair, guilt, and worthlessness
Feeling tired and sleepy during the day
Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight
Why do I get depressed in winter?
There is no recognised single cause of SAD, but it is likely that a reduction in sunlight exposure is a major contributing factor. This might be because sunlight impacts the body clock, production of the sleep hormone melatonin and the feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin (which is also involved in sleep). Body clock disruption and sleep impairment can have a significant impact on mental health.
Possible other risk factors include:
• Having a family history of SAD or other mood disorders
• Being female
• living further away from the equator (e.g. the UK)
• Being a younger adult (18 to 30 years of age).
NUTRITION tips to help SAD:
PROTEIN - although it is common to crave sugary and stodgy carbohydrates (such as cakes, white bread, potatoes, sugary comfort foods), this can make mood worse long term and it is best to avoid them if possible. Instead, aim to focus on eating quality protein such as chicken, fish, lean meat, nuts, bean and pulses. Proteins form the building blocks for hormones and neurotransmitter production, such as serotonin, which is associated with feeling content. It is therefore wise to ensure adequate intake, especially if feeling low.
INCLUDE HEALTHY FATS – omega 3 fats, found in oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring) have been associated with improvement in mood disorders such as depression. We don’t generally tend to eat enough of these foods in our diets – aim for 2-3 portions a week. Plant-based sources of omega 3 fats include flaxseeds, chia seeds & walnuts.
INCREASE MAGNESIUM – magnesium is associated with calming mood and regulating stress and energy levels, and it is also frequently lacking in western diets. It can be found in leafy green vegetables, such as spinach, cabbage, greens, and kale. It is also present in nuts and seeds (such as almonds & Brazil nuts, pumpkin & sunflower, and flax seeds) and whole grains (such as brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat & oats). Aim for at least 2 portions of magnesium-rich foods a day.
KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR VITAMIN D LEVELS – vitamin D plays a role in mood regulation and vitamin D deficiency has been associated with depression. It is quite common to be deficient, especially during the winter months. This is because sunshine is the best natural provider of vitamin D. However, it can also be found in oily fish, eggs, liver, and fortified foods – such as breakfast cereals and mushrooms (when grown under UV light).
LIFESTYLE tips to help with SAD:
Get outside daily – aiming to get outdoors and moving every day for at least 20 minutes can be extremely beneficial for mood. This is especially powerful if you can manage to do this in the morning as it helps support your internal body clock. I know that the weather can be really off-putting at this time of year but investing in a decent warm outdoor coat and shoes can really help.
Prioritise quality sleep – aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep a night. Remember that if you physically aren’t in bed long enough you can’t get sufficient sleep! If you need to get up at 6.30 am, you will ideally need to be in bed by 10 pm to allow for relaxation and sleep to set in properly.
Social connection – it is understandable that worries about social isolation may begin to set in as people hunker down for winter, especially after our isolating experience during the pandemic. Social connection (with the right people!) is vital to keep mood stable. Even a phone call with a loved one can improve mood. Decide what works for you and try to something scheduled into your diary so it doesn’t get forgotten about.
Do SAD lamps and light boxes work for winter depression?
Light therapy has been shown to be very beneficial for people experiencing SAD. This involves exposure to a special light box that emits UV light to replicate sunlight and can boost mood, energy, and concentration. I’d recommend one with at least 10,000 lux, however, you would still need to monitor your vitamin D levels. Alarm clocks which replicate the sunrise can also be useful in supporting the body’s natural daily waking rhythm, countering the difficulties of dark morning waking.