For around six per cent of the UK population, the onset of winter brings ‘major depressive episodes’ that can be extremely debilitating, making keeping up everyday tasks very difficult.
Seasonal affective disorder - otherwise known as SAD - is a form of clinical depression that has a clear pattern, occurring at the same time each year during winter.
LloydsPharmacy pharmacist Anshu Kaura says: “You might notice a loss of pleasure or interest in normal activities, feeling irritable, worthless, guilty or in despair, a lack of energy or lethargy during the day, and struggling to get up in the mornings.
“The NHS estimates that around one in 15 people in the UK are affected by SAD between September and April, and symptoms can increase during December, January and February. Women are four times more likely to be affected than men, and are more at risk if they are between the ages of 18 and 30.” A family history of depression, bipolar disorder or SAD may also increase your risk.
There are lots of different ideas about why SAD occurs, but evidence seems to point towards lack of sunlight being a trigger for some people. Less daylight hours in winter means the body produces more of the sleep hormone melatonin, which can cause lethargy and symptoms of depression.
What can I do to combat it?
1. More daily exercise
Lifestyle changes like regular exercise and getting as much sunlight as possible (for example trying to take at least a 20-minute walk outside every lunchtime) can make all the difference. Other behavioural habits - like making your workspace light and airy and sitting near windows when you’re indoors - can have a positive effect on your overall mood too.
2. Consider your light exposure and vitamin D intake
As there is not enough UVB radiation from the skin for our skin to make vitamin D, you should get vitamin D from food sources, such as oily fish, red meat and egg yolks.
The NHS suggests everyone in the UK should take a vitamin D supplement during winter, and vitamin D deficiency is fairly widespread. Herbal remedies like St John’s wort are also available.
There’s tech that can help too, like a sunrise lamp to stimulate exposure to sunlight, known as light therapy.
3. Manage your diet
Avoid sugary foods like chocolate, cakes and biscuits. Instead, eat healthier choices, which will give a longer lasting source of energy, such as fruit, nuts and seeds, yogurt and oat cakes.
4. Sort out your sleep routine
Feeling lethargic and sleepy during the day, or sleeping for longer than normal, are key symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, so taking steps to manage the time your spend in bed can help to keep both body and mind in a healthy routine.
On average, a ‘normal’ amount of sleep for an adult is considered to be around seven to nine hours a night.
If SAD is still affecting your day-to-day life, talk to your GP or pharmacist.