Calling it the ‘winter blues’ doesn’t do it justice – for the one in six people who suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder, the condition is as debilitating as depression, because that’s what SAD is, only with the difference that it occurs during the winter months.
Do you have the winter blues or SAD?
While it’s clear that somehow the shorter daylight hours trigger changes in those affected by SAD, researchers aren’t certain how those changes affect the body and why. Research from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, has produced some interesting results, however.
Scientists examined blood samples and looked at brain scans from a group of people with SAD and another without and found that those who suffered with SAD had higher levels of a certain protein. This protein, which SAD sufferers produce more of during winter months, can lower serotonin to levels where your mood is affected.
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Seek out the light
Everyday lightbulbs won’t give you the dose of light you need to work against the effects of winter darkness – but a light box could. These bright lights – usually 10,000 lux or more indicates a useful range of light – work because when the light hits your retina that sends a signal to your hypothalamus which in turn controls your circadian rhythms – the way your body responds to light and darkness.
As Seasonal Affective Disorder is triggered by the shorter daylight hours, which in itself means less sunlight, light therapy works by 'tricking' your brain by providing more light than there is naturally in the day.
Research from the Mood Disorders Centre at UBC hospital, Canada, found that light therapy was as effective as the antidepressant fluoxetine (also known as Prozac) in relieving the symptoms of depression.
NB Look for a light box that emits white light and has a UV filter, to protect your eyes.
How to choose the right light therapy gadget for you
Keep blood sugar stable
If your SAD symptoms see you struggling to peel yourself out of the duvet in the morning and then desperately wanting to crawl back into it in the afternoon, it could help to work on keep your blood sugar levels stable.
When you experience low blood sugar levels you might feel irritable, weak, anxious and confused. Combined with your general low feeling brought on by the lack of sun, this can be a serious problem.
Unfortunately the answer isn’t simply to eat high-sugar or high-carb foods to feed that need – because if you do, your insulin levels will spike, leading to a crash later on. This means opting for low-glycaemic index carbohydrates such as veg (except for potatoes with are starchy), sourdough or pumpernickel bread, wholewheat pasta, fruit and nuts.
Add protein to every meal to further maintain blood sugar levels (eggs, dairy, meat, fish, and legumes), and don’t forget the fat! Adding healthy fats such as a drizzle of olive oil or coconut oil, nuts or half an avocado to your meal will also help as they delay gastric emptying leaving your food to digest for longer, keeping you feeling fuller for longer.
8 foods that help regulate your blood sugar
Take control of your emotions
As with any disorder or illness there is a psychological and emotional aspect to it – if you can learn coping mechanisms to deal with symptoms, for example, it can relieve the emotional strain. ‘A client’s biggest struggle is understanding why they are feeling the way they do,” says Surrey-based psychotherapist Helen Donnison.
‘This lack of clarity creates anxiety and can lead to increased feelings of sadness and low self-esteem. If you think you may have SAD, one simple way of helping you to understand the way you are feeling, is keeping a daily journal.’
Using a scale from 1-5 to measure the intensity of your feelings, write down:
- How much sleep you had the night before
- How you feel when you wake up
- Whether you have the desire to skip food or comfort eat
- Do you feel sociable, or do you want to hide away under your duvet?
- How are you managing these feelings day to day?
- Are you looking after yourself (yoga, healthy eating)
- Are you punishing yourself (over-eating, drinking alcohol) for the way you feel?
‘By logging the ups and downs of your daily life,’ says Helen ‘you may start to be able to see patterns, learn how you respond to your feelings and gain clarity about what's going on for you. A journal can also provide support when seeking help from a doctor or rich material with which to start your journey with a psychotherapist or counsellor.’
How to practice mindfulness
Get some ‘outdorphins’
Exercise is the solve-all for almost any health issue and SAD is no exception. Research from the UC Davis Health System, US, has revealed how vigorous exercise increases levels of neurotransmitters, so that messaging within the brain is improved. Lower levels of these neurotransmitters is associated with depression. Vigorous exercise is key here – which means getting your heart rate up by walking briskly, cycling uphill or swimming fast.
If that’s not an option, don’t worry, you can still amp up the effect by exposing yourself to greenery. Research published in Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research has shown that even viewing imagery of nature triggers pleasure receptors in the brain and, according to other research from the University of Essex, UK, just half an hour of walking among trees or grass reduced depression in 71% of patients.
10 healthy reasons for a winter walk
Get down and dirty
Get digging in the garden or better yet, explore some woods if you have them near. Why? Well, research from Japan indicates that there are certain microbes – M. vaccae specifically – in the air around these natural settings that work as natural mood lifters.
How gardening helps your health
Affection is obviously a great way to boost serotonin levels but if that’s not an option for you, book yourself a massage. The process of having your skin and flesh manipulated changes your body’s chemical balance, increasing levels of both transmitters serotonin and dopamine, according to a study from the University of Miami School of Medicine, relieving depression and anxiety.
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