With the changing of the clocks, we are reminded that the increasingly long nights and shortening days of winter are upon us. Whilst few people actually look forward to the cold months and complain of having ‘winter blues’ there are approximately 5 million people in Britain who suffer from winter depression, known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Although once considered to be an illness of hypochondriacs, most doctors now accept its existence as being separate from non-seasonal depression. People who suffer from non-seasonal depression tend to feel worse during the winter months whereas in those who suffer from SAD, symptoms start to appear every winter and clear up in the spring. These symptoms include feeling tired and sleeping more than usual, feeling down, tense and irritable, having no interest in things, being unable to concentrate, feeling anti-social and craving sweet and starchy foods such as chocolate, pasta and bread.
It has been suggested that the rise in the number of people suffering from SAD is due to the fact that changes in our way of living mean people spend less time outdoors than they used to. What is interesting is that this condition is not found in countries located around the equator where there is less of a seasonal variation in the length of days.
Although the exact cause of SAD is not known it would appear that lack of light is a contributory factor. The decreasing amount of light lowers the levels of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that is important for both mood as well as for regulation of sleep and appetite. This is why it is important to make sure you are exposed to natural light at some point every day. Go for a brisk walk in the park, go cycling or tackle some of those jobs in the garden that you have always been meaning to do, anything to get you out into the fresh air. Even if the sky is overcast, a significant amount of light does penetrate the clouds to benefit the body.
Exercise is an excellent way to help with mild depression, whether seasonal or non-seasonal. It produces endorphins in the brain helping to lift spirits and reduce irritability. It helps you stay in contact with other people and keeps you trim into the bargain. The problem is that some people with SAD stop taking exercise during the winter months due to lack of motivation and this only makes the condition worse.
There are other changes you can make to your lifestyle in order to lift your mood. Try to include oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and sardines in your diet. These are high in Omega–3 fats and are not only good for mood but can also protect the heart. Cut down on sugary foods such as cakes, biscuits and sweets and opt for porridge, wholemeal bread, brown rice and pasta that release sugar into the bloodstream slowly. Keep an eye on your alcohol intake as this can make depression worse.
Positive thinking really can make a difference to how you feel too. Data from an American Health and Retirement Study* followed older people over a two-year period and found that there was a reduction in stroke risk the more optimistic they were. After controlling for factors such as sociodemographics, and biological, behavioural and psychological risk, the benefits of optimism remained. In fact, measuring optimism using a validated scale from 3 to 18, the reduction in stroke risk was as much as 9% for each unit increase in optimism.
Help is at hand in the form of herbal supplements such as Hypericum perforatum (St John’s Wort) which is suitable for calming those who are anxious and cheering up those who are sad. Taken as a tincture, it absorbs easily into the bloodstream. It is best to start taking the tincture a few weeks before SAD syndrome takes hold to allow it time to begin working. It should not be used for anything more than minor depression or states of anxiety so you are advised to consult your doctor prior to taking Hypericum.
People affected by SAD tend to have weaker immune systems and as a result are more prone to catching colds and flu. Taking a daily dose of the herb Echinacea purpurea in tincture form is one of the best ways of protecting yourself against cold related illnesses.
*Kim ES et al. Stroke 2011; 42: 2855-9
Ali has worked in the health industry for over 20 years now, she also lectures & trains on health issues, and is often to be found quoted in health magazines.