Stop Being So Sad

7 February 2006

Publication: OK!

Seasonal Affective Disorder needn’t mean months of stress and misery...

Short, sunless days and long, dark evenings don’t exactly do much to lift the spirits. After the excitement and surge of activity over Christmas, the first few months of the New Year are bound to be a bit of an anti-climax. But for some people, an estimated 30 per cent of the population, the onset of winter triggers much more than a case of the blues – it can actually change their personalities. Many people find that they feel low in energy and mood during the winter months. They may sleep and eat slightly more and dislike the dark mornings. For some, the symptoms are more severe and are enough to disrupt their lives and cause considerable stress. Normally outgoing people become withdrawn and reclusive, energetic people become unusually lethargic and many sink into a depression which, in the most extreme cases, has led to thoughts of suicide. These people have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which can come on any time between September and April.

What causes SAD?

December, January and February are considered to be the worst months for SAD, which is caused by a lack of bright light in winter. Researchers have proved that when bright light enters our eyes, it causes chemical reactions to occur that control our daily rhythms and moods. The sleep hormone melatonin is produced as it gets dark, making us feel drowsy. At dawn, as the light increases, melatonin production falls and we start to wake up. We find it more difficult to wake up on dark mornings because our melatonin levels are still high. Research suggests that SAD sufferers have abnormally high levels of melatonin. Research has also shown that light affects the production of serotonin. Bright light increases production while low levels of light mean low levels of serotonin, which affects our mood and can lead to bouts of depression.

What are the symptoms?

Sleep problems – can’t get out of bed in the mornings or sleeping more but still tired.

Overeating – carbohydrate cravings, leading to weight gain.

No energy – too tired to cope, and everything is an effort.

Depression – normal, everyday tasks become frustratingly difficult.

Mood swings and irritability.

A loss of sex drive.

See the light

As the cause of SAD is a lack of bright light, one of the most effective forms of treatment is to get away during the winter months to somewhere bright. Failing that, another option is to use light therapy. This involves exposure to full-spectrum light – at least ten times the intensity of ordinary domestic lighting – which as far as possible mimics sunlight. According to experts, the bright light acts as a substitute for the missing daylight and helps reduce melatonin levels in the blood, so resetting the body clock. Users sit in front of the light box for around 20 minutes a day and can start feeling better after about four days. There are styles to suit different needs and you can even get one that sits on top of your computer screen. The Outside In Company do a full range of different light boxes. They’re available mail order on 01954 780 500 or via its website at www.outsidein.co.uk.

Natural solutions

Antidepressants can be prescribed to treat the condition but there are other more natural solutions to help you beat the winter blues:

Keep moving Getting regular exercise will help. Just doing a few minutes, preferably outdoors, either walking, jogging or cycling, and getting a dose of daylight can be hugely beneficial in beating seasonal depression. According to a study by the mental health charity MIND, exercise was found to be more effective than medication in relieving severe depression.

Eat well Diet too can play an important role. Avoid overloading on refined starchy foods and sugary snacks and keep up your fruit and veg intake with plenty of homemade vegetable soups, roasted vegetables with herbs and hot fruit compotes. Foods such as soya products, nuts, seeds (flax, hemp, pumpkin, sunflower and sesame) and wholegrains are also recommended. These help the body synthesise the amino acid tryptophan, which is the building block for serotonin, the body’s feel-good hormone. Having moderate amounts of protein (eg tuna, chicken, lean meat, eggs or meat) every day – particularly at lunchtime – will also help as it encourages the production of a brain chemical known as dopamine, which improves afternoon alertness. A recent report by the Mental Health Foundation and food campaign group Sustain, says diet certainly has an impact on our mental health. Researchers have found that a lack of vitamins and minerals combined with a decrease of important Omega-3 fatty acids is linked with depression, lack of concentration and memory problems.

Make sure you eat at least five portions of fresh fruit and vegetables a day and boost your intake of Omega-3 fats by including more oily fish, seeds and cold-pressed seed oils and vegetable spreads such as Flora in your diet.

Flower power

There are some herbal remedies that can help. The Bach Original Flower Remedy range was created back in the ‘30s by Dr Edward Bach. ‘Hornbeam is a great remedy for weariness, particularly where the symptoms are mental rather than physical,’ says Carly Harding, a Bach Foundation registered practitioner. All the Bach Original Flower Remedies, £5.65 each, are available from Holland & Barrett, Boots and selected health food stores. For more information visit www.bachremedies.com.

Five of the best – blues busters!

You’ll feel better in no time with these natural remedies…

Fushi’s The Blues Herbal Tonic, £12.95, 465ml. A herbal blend, including St John’s Wort, ginseng, lavender and rose, designed to lift the spirits. Totally organic.

Magnetic Therapy Haematite Amber Bracelet, £16.95. Improve your mood and balance your body’s energy with this stylish bracelet.

Natural Magic Revitalise Candle, £35. Stimulating citrus scents blended with mint and rosemary give the perfect pick-me-up.

Efalex, £6.99 for 60 capsules. Contains the perfect balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6, vital in the function of brain chemicals.

Dr Stuart’s Winter Ease Tea, £1.89 for 20 bags. Boost your well-being with a brew! Contains revitalising peppermint, uplifting sage and warming elderflower.

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