And this year, I'm planning ahead for it!
Although it still officially only August (just), it's hard not to think ahead to those long dark winter nights, and the corresponding short days. And the prospect of short days and long cold nights is enough to depress anyone - especially after the summer we've just had. But for a significant proportion of the population winter also brings with it the health problem known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD.
What is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder, also known as winter blues or seasonal depression, is actually a form of depression and needs to be taken seriously by patients, carers and the medical profession alike. It is triggered by shorter days, and a reduction in light levels as the sun doesn't climb as high in the sky. For this reason, SAD is more common in countries far from the equator like in Northern Europe, than in more southern latitudes such as north Africa, or equatorial regions
Symptoms of SAD include:
- sadness, hopelessness, and low mood for an extended period of time
- Weight gain and increased appetite, with a particular craving for carbohydrates
- Losing interest in activities that are normally enjoyable, and consequently losing social contact and becoming more withdrawn
- Tiredness and oversleeping, with a feeling of always being low in energy
- Deterioration in memory and other cognitive functions. For example getting confused easily, or finding it harder to make decisions.
If you are a frequent sufferer now is the time to start taking action to reduce the impact of this year's winter blues.
Light is by far the best treatment option for SAD, although antidepressant drugs and talk therapy also play their part. The problem is how to maximise your light exposure at a time of year when light is at a premium.
Top tips to ensure you maximise light exposure:
- Make a point of being outdoors at some stage during the brightest part of the day (usually between 11am and 2pm.) If you can combine exercise with this time, so much the better as exercise is a good treatment for all forms of depression. So take a walk outdoors during your lunch break, do a bit of gardening, take the dog for a walk, go running. Even on a cloudy day you will get a big dose of light by being outside at this time.
- Find an open space outdoors where you're not shaded by trees or buildings. Think parks or running tracks. Lakes and mountains. Open countryside or roof gardens. Think Big Sky
- Use a light box. But make sure it is one which delivers 10 000 lux of light at a reasonable distance from it. It will be rated something like "10 000 lux at 30cm/ one foot". Use it first thing in the morning if you can, but the best is as soon as possible after you waken in the morning.
- Make sure your environment is as bright as possible. Indoors make sure all the windows are clear of curtains and pull the blinds open fully to stop any shading. Spend more time in the South side of the house than the North. Sit near the biggest windows.
- Cut down or trim any trees shading your windows.
- Ask your employer if you can sit near a window, and time your breaks for the brightest parts of the day.
- Consider a sun holiday if you can afford it. But at the very least take a few days off when you're at your lowest, and spend the middle of those days outside.
- Take good care of your diet. Eat helthily. Don't succumb to those sugar cravings, or you'll get a sugar rush followed by an insulin crash with all the mood swings that entails. Try to eat protein and slow release carbohydrates regularly throughout the day .
- Tell people how you feel, and how you need to be encouraged to get out and about rather than skulking at home.
- Exercise at least 3-5 times per week. This is a treatment recommended for all forms of depression.
- Consider antidepressants if your doctor recommends them
- Consider talk therapy
But most of all at the darkest point in winter, remember Spring will follow, and Summer after that, and your worls will be filled with light again.