This post looks at Seasonal Affective disorder or SAD. Often called the “Winter Blues”, it’s a form of depression that can turn these months into a real struggle for some people. Here I’ll describe the typical symptoms of SAD and suggest practical steps that will help everyone – with or without SAD – to cope with the dark nights and short days.
This morning my hubby was sitting drinking his morning coffee looking a bit glum. “It’s hard to get motivated about the day when you draw back the curtains and it’s so gloomy and dark outside” he said.
I have to agree. This morning the light outside my window could easily be mistaken for late afternoon. It’s grey, it’s damp and the sky is universally drab.
It’s no surprise of course that many people have low energy levels on mornings like this. In fact it’s completely natural. As living creatures we’re biologically wired to respond to daily and seasonal shifts in temperature and light levels. Just as the plants in your garden put on a terrific growth surge in Spring, settle into steady productivity with flowers and fruits in Summer and then naturally die back in late Autumn – so too do our rhythms wax and wane across the seasons.
There are times of the year when you feel energised and full of optimism, often in the Spring, and times like the Autumn when it can feel a real struggle to do anything.
Changes in light levels naturally trigger these shifts. Our bodies contain myriad cellular body clocks linked to a master clock. This boss clock uses daylight to keep the rest of the body’s systems in sync with the natural day-night cycle. One system that relies upon this regulation is of course your wake-sleep cycle. Daylight inhibits the release of melatonin, the hormone that triggers feelings of sleepiness. It also stimulates the production of serotonin, the “feel good” hormone that stabilises mood and promotes a sense of wellbeing.
It makes perfect sense then that in Autumn and Winter when natural light levels are lower that you feel sleepier and less energetic. In some people these feelings are more noticeable and troublesome. They experience more extreme symptoms of fatigue and low mood and develop Seasonal Affective Disorder, aptly abbreviated to SAD.
SAD is a recurrent type of depression that typically comes in the Autumn and lifts in Spring.
Although it’s not exactly clear yet what causes this condition, it’s often linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the winter months.
How do you tell if you’ve got normal winter blues or SAD?
SAD symptoms go beyond feeling a bit low on a Monday morning or craving a duvet day now and then. They recur at similar times of year, usually in Autumn/Winter and lift as the days lengthen again in Spring. SAD symptoms are similar to those for other types of depression and include:
- persistent low mood – your mood doesn’t lift after a few hours or a day or so
- low self esteem – you have feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy and judge yourself harshly
- wanting to withdraw socially – you have neither the energy or the motivation to enjoy company. Your confidence has taken a dive too
- feeling irritable – you notice that even the smallest of things can set you off
- stress – you feel overwhelmed by everyday demands
- anxiety – you find yourself obsessively worrying about things and imagining worst-case scenarios.
As well as these typical symptoms of depression people with SAD may also notice that they have a greater need for sleep, gain weight, find it difficult to concentrate and crave sugary foods.
If you think you may be developing SAD then pay attention to how you feel. Keeping a daily diary of your mood, energy and sleep can be useful. There’s a difference of scale between a desire to hibernate in winter (after all that’s how the natural world is designed) and persistent fatigue and low mood. If you are at all concerned then visit your GP. It’s much better to take proactive action than let depression take hold.
How common is SAD?
Previous studies suggested about 1 – 2 % of the population develop SAD but other research indicates that this is an underestimate and the percentage is in the region of 6-8%. A greater number, around 10 – 20%, experience a milder form of SAD. Women are thought to be more susceptible than men.
SAD and Sleep
If you experience SAD even in its milder forms, you are likely to want to sleep more. (In fact, you don’t have to have SAD at all to crave more sleep in the winter months. It’s part of the natural cycle to hibernate!)
However your sleep habits can become seriously disrupted if you start to sleep excessively.
One of the processes governing sleep is your sleep drive. The longer you’re awake the stronger the drive. Your sleep drive is at its lowest when you awake at say7am after a decent night. As the day progresses the drive increases so that it’s strongest in the evening around bedtime.
Your sleep drive is undermined however if you sleep long hours at night, lie-in till midday at weekends and take a daytime nap. When it comes to an appropriate time to feel sleepy i.e. late evening, your sleep drive is not high enough. You stay awake into the night and of course next morning it’s a struggle to wake up.
Just falling into this pattern at weekends can have a disastrous impact on your weekday sleep when you need to be at your best and at your desk in the morning.
Sleep thrives on consistency too so a poor sleep habit that you develop during the Winter may well persist into the Spring when your energy might otherwise be picking up.
Equally if you’re spending hours in bed asleep, or trying to sleep, then your opportunities for getting exposure to natural light and exercise are reduced. As mentioned above, exposure to daylight is very important in maintaining healthy sleep-wake cycles. Exercise also has a beneficial effect on mood and sleep.
You may also miss out on seeing friends and other activities that bring meaning and enjoyment to your day.
As you adapt and try your best to cope with SAD these kinds of behaviour changes unfortunately combine together to create a cycle of low mood – low energy – excessive sleepiness.
What can you do to combat SAD?
If you’re finding that low mood and energy are really getting to you then do proritise your self-care. Take your symptoms seriously. Depression in all its forms is very common and everyone is vulnerable. Seek advice from your GP. Depression responds well to early intervention so don’t put off seeking a professional opinion.
Self-help strategies for everyone
Whether you have SAD, a mild expression of it or are just someone who finds the winter months difficult, here are some practical steps you can take to help you cope –
- Get daily exposure to natural daylight.
Even on a cloudy day the intensity of natural daylight far exceeds that of artificial indoor lighting. Light intensity is about 1000 lux on a cloudy winter day in the UK whereas a typical office space will be lit to 300-500 lux. Daylight is at its strongest around midday so a lunchtime walk is ideal.
2. Make your work and home environment as light as possible.
Move your desk to near a window and whenever possible sit close to natural daylight.
3. Take regular exercise, ideally outdoors.
Exercise is often recommended as a treatment for mild to moderate depression. It can be as effective as antidepressants since it naturally boosts the production of serotonin and other mood-enhancing hormones. It also helps to reduce stress. Aim for around 30 – 60 minutes daily and find an activity that you enjoy as when you’re low in spirits it can be harder to motivate yourself. Perhaps join up with a member of your family or a friend to help you stick to it.
4. Eat healthily.
High fat, high carb foods will make you feel sluggish and it’s so easy then to let things slide. In that state it’s even harder to take any of these self-help steps! It’s natural to want to eat energy-dense foods in Winter but try to balance your intake with healthy slow release carbs, plenty of vegetables and good quality protein. Together with daily exercise this will prevent winter weight gain.
5. Keep hydrated.
Drink plenty of water and de-caffeinated drinks. Spending hours indoors in artificially heated buildings can be very dehydrating. Lack of sufficient water can make you tired as well as more prone to headaches.
6. Avoid using alcohol to de-stress or sleep.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Although you may enjoy the initial impact of a glass or two, alcohol can trigger feelings of anxiety. It masks the symptoms of stress and once the effects have worn off your stress will return. Take healthy steps instead to deal with it and seek professional guidance if you feel that stress is getting the better of you.
Alcohol also interferes with the structure of sleep, making it more fragmented and less restorative. The later you consume it in the evening, the stronger the impact. Avoid an alcoholic nightcap and explore other healthier ways to unwind into sleep. A simple relaxation exercise can be a surprisingly effective way to power down and prepare your body for restful sleep.
7. Stick to a sleep schedule.
Establish regular times to go to bed and get up, even at weekends. If you feel sleepy during the day limit a nap to around 20 minutes – otherwise it will reduce your sleep drive and you’ll find it harder to sleep that night.
8. Try bright light therapy.
Some people find this effective in the treatment for SAD. It involves sitting close to a light box for about 30 minutes every morning. There are numerous models on the market but it’s important to check that any product you buy delivers at least 2500 lux (a lightbulb is typically 50 lux). Light therapy is not suitable for people with certain medical conditions or on some medications – so do consult your GP before using one.
We’re moving deeper into Autumn now and the UK clocks go back this weekend. With the backdrop of continued uncertainty for our personal and professional lives, we’re all more vulnerable than usual to feeling overwhelmed and, well just SAD.
Any steps you can take to protect your physical and mental health are really important right now. And please share this article with anyone you know who might need a helping hand.
If you have any concerns about your sleep then please get in touch. You can book a complimentary call with me here and get a professional opinion on what you need to do to ensure your sleep is as good as it possibly can be this winter – and beyond.
Sleep Well 🙂
Subscribe to Sleep Well Updates