Seasonal affective disorder: how to know if you’re suffering, plus top tips for treating your symptoms

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  • Did you know? Women are roughly four times more likely to experience SAD than men.

    Struggling mentally with the baltic weather and darker days? Don’t worry – winter blues are fairly common, as are seasonal affective disorder, otherwise known as SAD.

    FYI, the colder, darker weather can have a serious impact on your emotional well-being. It’s thought to affect up to three in 100 people in the UK, with most first experiencing symptoms in their 20s or early 30s. Another interesting fact for you: women are roughly four times more likely to experience SAD than men.

    You may have heard the term thrown around but not be totally sure what the condition entails. Keep reading for an expert-led breakdown of SAD, including the most common symptoms and easiest treatments, too. Do check out our guides to endometriosis symptoms, polycystic ovary syndrome, and PMDD symptoms, while you’re here.

    Seasonal affective disorder: your guide

    What causes seasonal affective disorder? 

    In short, seasonal affective disorder is a particular type of depression that comes and goes with seasonal change.

    Symptoms usually appear in autumn and stay throughout winter, when daylight hours are at their shortest, and improves in spring and summer. Usually, symptoms reoccur with the change of the season later in the year and can worsen when the clocks go back.

    Seasonal affective disorder: a woman with a cold

    What causes seasonal affective disorder?

    The exact cause is unknown, but it’s believed to be as a result of the reduced exposure to natural light over the winter months. According to the NHS, the primary theory is that a lack of sunlight can impact upon several of the body’s functions.

    For example:

    • The production of melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone, may increase
    • The production of serotonin, which affects appetite, mood, and sleep (read our guide to how to get to sleep, here) may be lower, and
    • Your body clock may be disrupted as it relies on sunlight to time various functions.

    Around one in three people in the UK have SAD, according to YouGov. Some people may also be more prone to the condition for genetic reasons, as it seems to run in families in some instances.

    Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder: 10 to know about

    According to the NHS, the most common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder can include:

    • Feeling irritable
    • Feeling guilty
    • Feeling worthless
    • Feeling lethargic
    • Feeling uninterested in normal everyday activities
    • Anxiety
    • Low mood
    • Sleeping too much
    • Finding it difficult to get up
    • Experiencing cravings.

    You may also experience a persistent low mood, sleep too much, find it difficult to get up in the mornings, or crave carbohydrates.

    The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, stereotypically mirror those of low-grade depression, but may also include other issues, explains consultant psychologist Ingrid Collins of the London Medical Centre.

    “You may loose your appetite, you may struggle to concentrate, and you may experience disrupted sleep,” she shares. “Not to mention, you may have anxious thoughts that are particularly “doom and gloom” for no logical reason, and even the simplest tasks may become a struggle, with motivation at rock bottom.”

    Why? Short answer – “because the immune system is less effective and therefore you’re more prone to illness,” shares Collins.

    Seasonal affective disorder: depressed woman

    Seasonal affective disorder treatments

    Collins says that recognising that you might be suffering from S.A.D. is the first major step towards recovery. The good news is that there is a wide range of options you can try out to see which has the most positive impact on your symptoms.

    1. See your doctor

    Your first port of call should always be your GP, who will advise you on the best course of action. They may recommend a course of antidepressants or talking therapies.

    2. Supplement

    Again, it’s always worth consulting with a specialist prior to taking supplements, but research indicates that St. Johns Worth and Vitamin D can be effective at easing symptoms. “The lack of sunlight is the major cause of SAD,” shares Collins. That’s because the action of sunlight on your skin causes you to manufacture vitamin D, which is a very important biochemical.

    Read our guides to Vitamin D foods and Vitamin D recipes, while you’re here.

    3. Try a lightbox

    Lightboxes are one of the most popular treatment options for people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder. Why? Because the lamps mimic natural daylight. Simply sitting in their glow for the recommended time per day – that’s usually between 45-90 minutes – can really help to alleviate SAD symptoms, or so share experts.

    Lumie are the original creators of the Bodyclock wake-up light, an alarm clock that gently wakes you with daylight giving your body a nudge to adjust its hormone levels accordingly. They have loads of different lightbox and clock options available so it’s worth exploring to find one that’s right for you – our guides to sunrise alarm clocks will help.

    4. Move more

    Lastly, movement is always a great way to shake – or at least ease – SAD symptoms. Not sure where to start? Our guide to free home workouts, weight training, and running tips for beginners will help.

    “Exercise always helps,” shares Collins. “It helps you produce extra endorphins, aka the happiness hormone.”

    If you’re not the sporty type, don’t panic, as going for a walk is still a great way to encourage endorphin production and get some fresh air (these are the best UK hikes to try). One King’s College London study found that simply being outside can boost your mood for up to four hours afterward, so it’s well worth getting outside.

    Note that the purpose of this feature is to inform, not replace one-to-one medical consultations. For advice tailored specifically to you, always discuss your health with a doctor.

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