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Condition - Wrap up your winter blues! - Seasonal affective disorder explained

By Corin Evans DipION FdSc MBANT

Many of us experience subtle changes in mood and behaviour during the winter months, often wanting to ‘hibernate’ until the warmer, sunnier weather returns. However, for some, this change in season can have a more profound effect, making normal life quite a challenge. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is thought to affect an estimated two million people in the UK and Ireland, with many more sufferers worldwide, in both the northern and southern hemispheres, that sit more than 30 degrees above or below the equator. 

In people living in the northern hemisphere, symptoms usually start around September or October time and lift, sometimes quite suddenly, around March or April. The symptoms can be very debilitating. Often the overriding indication of SAD is low mood or depression but sufferers can experience a multitude of symptoms, including difficulty getting up in the morning, a heightened need for sleep, irritability, reduced libido, inability to tolerate stress and social withdrawal. Another classic feature is craving carbohydrates or sugary foods, particularly in the evenings, which can sometimes lead to over-eating and weight gain.

So what causes SAD and what can you do to support the body and brain through the long winter months, to optimise energy and mood and reduce the effects of SAD?

SAD appears to arise partially as a result of the reduced light levels that occur during the winter months. The days are shorter and many of us spend less time outside, either unable to make the most of the available light, due to work commitments, or simply preferring to keep warm and dry during the bad weather. Clinical research suggests a possible link between low status of vitamin D and the occurrence of SAD. When you remember that vitamin D is made in the body, following exposure of skin to sunlight, and that low levels of vitamin D have also been linked to depression, it seems prudent to consider whether or not you may be low in vitamin D. Spending as much time as you can outside during the winter months, to maximise both light exposure and vitamin D production, is good advice for anyone who suspects that they are suffering from SAD, or look at supplementing vitamin D. You could even consider it the perfect excuse for booking a winter holiday to sunnier climes! On a more day-to-day level, you may also want to think about investing in a ‘SAD lamp’. While these do not provide the UVB light wavelengths required to make vitamin D in the body, there is mounting evidence to support their effectiveness in helping to reset the body’s own natural sleep/wake cycle, which is often disrupted in sufferers of SAD.

Low levels of serotonin in the brain may also be a contributory factor and it appears that levels of this important neurotransmitter may also drop in response to low light exposure. Supporting healthy neurotransmitter levels may be helpful for the SAD sufferer, so include foods such as turkey, chicken, avocado, cottage cheese and banana, which are good sources of the amino acid tryptophan, which is the precursor to 5HTP.

Therefore, 5HTP or St John’s Wort may also be useful to support healthy neurotransmitter balance. Additionally, tyrosine is essential for production of the neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenaline, which are associated with happiness and motivation. Therefore, taking tyrosine within a supplement may be beneficial.

Other nutrients that support healthy neurotransmitter levels and, consequently, brain function include the essential fats, in particular omega 3. Therefore, adding oily fish, flax and pumpkin seeds and walnuts to your diet, or supplementing with these vital oils, may be useful. Also imperative are the B vitamins, vitamin C and zinc, so focus your diet around fresh vegetables, fruit and wholegrains and include plenty of nuts and seeds. Taking an additional supplement containing these nutrients would also be beneficial.

Regular exercise is really important to help improve mood and boost energy. Exercising outdoors is especially good, as research suggests that exercise may also help to boost serotonin levels in the brain and we already know that spending time outside in the fresh air can really give you a lift.

Some people find that, aside from mood, carbohydrate cravings are the most difficult aspect of SAD to cope with, as this inevitably leads to weight gain. The best way to deal with this is to encourage good blood sugar control,  by eating small, frequent meals that combine wholegrain foods with vegetables/fruit and good quality protein and, even though it may be hard at first, try to avoid sugary and caffeinated food and drinks. Another useful nutrient is chromium, which has been shown to improve carbohydrate cravings and help reduce appetite, in people with eating-related symptoms of depression. Balancing blood sugar levels can also go a long way towards helping to keep energy and mood on an even keel and avoiding feelings of irritability, anxiety and fatigue. Balanced blood sugar levels have the added advantage of supporting the body’s stress response, which is often poor in the SAD sufferer. If stress levels do seem to escalate, try increasing your intake of magnesium, found in leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains. Extra magnesium, taken as a supplement in the evening, may help you to wind down both physically and mentally, promoting relaxation and, therefore, restful sleep.

Hopefully, with a combination of diet, lifestyle changes and some carefully-chosen nutrients, you’ll be on your way to banishing the winter blues and, who knows, hibernation may be a thing of the past. 

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