Winter months can often bring about feelings of low mood and fatigue, but for some individuals, these seasonal changes can be debilitating and affect their mood and energy levels for large parts of the year. This condition is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression. It is important to recognize that SAD is not a lighter form of clinical depression, but rather a distinct version of the illness that should be taken seriously.
According to the NHS, one in 15 individuals will be affected by SAD between September and April, with higher rates in countries such as Sweden and Denmark where there is reduced sunlight during the winter months. SAD is characterized by symptoms of depression that are more prevalent in the colder months, although some individuals may experience a similar extreme shift in mood during the summer.
To better understand SAD and how to treat it, we spoke to Stephen Buckley, the head of information at Mind, and Professor Zoltan Sarnyai, a Harvard neuroscientist and developer of the wellbeing supplements brand ALLY.
Buckley explains that while many people may experience changes in mood and energy levels with the seasons, those with SAD experience a much greater impact on their day-to-day life. SAD can affect individuals when there are fewer hours of daylight, but some people may experience symptoms at other times of the year as well. Buckley also notes that individuals with other types of depression may also experience more difficult times during certain seasons, and similar treatments are recommended for both SAD and other types of depression that worsen during specific times.
The lack of daylight is a key factor in SAD, as it can disrupt our body clock and affect the hormones that regulate our mood and emotions. However, other factors such as trauma, difficult life events, or physical illness can also contribute to SAD. Extreme temperatures can also play a role, with some individuals feeling more uncomfortable in hotter or colder temperatures.
When it comes to diet and nutrition, Professor Sarnyai notes that studies have shown an association between vegetarianism and SAD, with a higher percentage of vegetarians among individuals with SAD compared to the general population. However, it is difficult to determine if these factors play a role in SAD or if individuals with SAD simply prefer these types of foods. The evidence for specific dietary interventions or supplementation against SAD is currently limited, although a combination of nutritional interventions and probiotics may be beneficial.
If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of SAD, it is important to talk to a local GP. They can provide guidance on available support and recommend treatments such as psychological therapy or medication. Antidepressants may be beneficial for some individuals, but they do not work for everyone and can have potential side effects. Talking therapies, such as counseling or cognitive-behavioral therapy, can also be helpful in treating SAD.
In addition to professional treatment, there are some self-care strategies that may help alleviate symptoms of SAD. Spending time in natural light, such as going for walks or sitting near a window, can be beneficial. Physical activity, especially when done outside, can also help reduce symptoms. A balanced diet, including fruits and vegetables, is important, and some individuals may find supplements such as vitamin B12 or vitamin D useful.
Overall, recognizing the distinct nature of SAD and seeking appropriate support and treatment are crucial in managing and improving symptoms.