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Condition - Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Winter depression / Winter blues

By Holly Taylor BSc (Hons) DipCNM MBANT

SAD is a type of winter depression that affects an estimated 2 million people in the UK and Ireland. While SAD occurs throughout the northern and southern hemispheres, it is extremely rare in those living within 30 degrees of the Equator, where daylight hours are long, constant and extremely bright. Symptoms typically begin in September, increase in frequency over the next four months and reach a peak in January. The symptoms generally remain high in February and March, declining sharply in April and May. In some sufferers, symptoms may occur at other times of the year when reduced light levels are experienced, i.e. prolonged periods of dull weather in summer or low levels of light at home or at work. Some or all of the following symptoms may be present:

  • Depression.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Lethargy and inability to cope with daily routine.
  • Over-eating, notably with sugar and carbohydrate cravings.
  • Loss of concentration and memory.
  • Anxiety and pessimism.
  • Loss of libido.
  • Irritability and inability to tolerate stress.

Symptoms can occur at any age but usually appear between the ages of 18 and 30. Some people with SAD can become clinically depressed but many will have a milder form, commonly referred to as “winter blues”. It is not known why some people succumb to SAD and others don’t. The disorder appears to be more common in women than in men.

Possible contributing factors

  • Natural light deprivation.
  • Low levels of serotonin in the brain.
  • Disruption of Circadian rhythms – internal “body clock” is disrupted.

SAD symptoms may be made worse by other underlying conditions, such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue.

Useful Nutrients

  • 5HTP – important for neurotransmitter (brain chemical) production. Should not be taken with St John’s Wort.
  • Fish oils – to aid neurotransmitter production and reception.
  • B vitamins – vital for energy and supporting the nervous system. B6 deficiencies are common in those suffering from depression.
  • Tyrosine – an amino acid that helps maintain healthy levels of motivation and enthusiasm.
  • Zinc – necessary, along with B vitamins, for maintaining normal brain health and serotonin levels.
  • St John’s Wort – should not be taken with 5HTP.
  • Magnesium – helps promote restful sleep and balanced mood.
  • Acetyl l carnitine – helps with energy and enhances concentration and learning.
  • Alpha lipoic acid – helps create energy from carbohydrates.

Nutritional advice

  • Increase fresh, whole-foods in the diet, including a wide variety of vegetables and wholegrains, such as brown rice and quinoa, pulses and legumes.
  • Eat three meals a day with a protein snack mid-morning and afternoon.
  • Ensure each meal contains protein, such as lean meat, chicken, turkey or fish, and combine this with complex carbohydrates, such as brown rice or wholewheat pasta and steamed vegetables.
  • Eat healthy snacks, such as nuts and seeds, with a piece of fruit, such as an apple or pear.
  • Avoid sugary and refined foods and processed meals.
  • Avoid stimulants such as tea, coffee and alcohol.

Lifestyle advice

  • Aim to spend more time outdoors, to maximise exposure to sunlight.
  • Many people respond well to “light therapy” using a “natural daylight box” on a daily basis.
  • Regular exercise may help to boost serotonin levels and so benefit mood and motivation, as well as physical health. Taking a 30 minute walk in the middle part of the day may be beneficial. If exercising indoors, position yourself near a window.
  • Regular relaxation can help to alleviate stress and strain and promote a feeling of wellbeing. Taking a relaxing bath with aromatherapy oils, having a massage or regular yoga sessions can all be helpful. 

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