Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of winter depression that affects an estimated 2 million people in the UK and Ireland and is generally caused by lack of sunlight which adversely affects the brain and in particular the individuals mood.
While SAD occurs throughout the northern and southern hemispheres, it is extremely rare in those living within 30 degrees of the Equator, where daylight hours are long constant and extremely bright. Symptoms typically start in September, increase in frequency over the following 4 months and reach a peak in January. The symptoms generally remain high in February and March, declining sharply in April and May. Symptoms can occur at any age but usually appear between the ages of 18 and 30. Some people with SAD become clinically depressed but many will have a milder form, commonly known as ‘winter blues’. It is not known why some people succumb to SAD and others don’t. The disorder appears to be more common in women than men.
Some or all of the following symptoms may be present:
• Sleep Problems
• Lethargy and inability to cope with daily routine
• Over-eating, notable with sugar and carbohydrate cravings
• Loss of concentration and memory
• Anxiety and pessimism
• Loss of libido
• Irritability and inability to tolerate stress.
If you think you may be suffering from the above symptoms, especially in the latter part of the year, please follow the nutritional and lifestyle advice outlined below. If your symptoms do not improve, I would recommend that you see a Nutritional Therapist who will be able to suggest natural remedies in the form of specific Nutritional Supplements.
First and foremost, aim to spend more time outdoors to maximise exposure to sunlight, for example, walking the dog, going for a brisk walk or run (exercise increases levels of dopamine which is the ‘feel good hormone’). If spending time outside is not an option, ‘light therapy’ may be an alternative so investing in a ‘natural daylight box’ is recommended.
The following changes to the diet may also help to relieve the symptoms:
• Increase fresh whole-foods in the diet; include a wide range of fruit and vegetables and whole grains such as brown rice, pulses and legumes.
• Ensure each meal contains protein, such as lean meat, chicken turkey or fish – animal protein (especially turkey) also contain the raw materials to make dopamine. Combine this with complex carbohydrates, such as brown rice or whole wheat pasta and lots of vegetables.
• Eat three meals a day with protein snack mid morning and mid afternoon. Snacks such as nuts and seeds with a piece of fruit such as an apple or pear.
• Sugary foods (biscuits and cakes), refined foods (white rice, pasta and bread) and ready meals and takeaways must be avoided as these are energy drainers and may cause individuals to feel quite ‘low’.
• Stimulants such as tea coffee and alcohol should also be avoided – as these, after the initial ‘high’ will cause major dips in energy and mood.
However all is not lost – chocolate also contains dopamine and serotonin which both promote feelings of happiness and pleasure in a similar way to sunlight... so a couple of pieces on a daily basis may well help improve your mood!