You’re experiencing a distinct lack of energy; your mood is low and you’re prone to tears; you find it harder than usual to get up in the morning, you’ve never craved carbohydrates more and you can’t think of anything worse than socialising. If any of these tendencies sound familiar, you might just be experiencing the effects of seasonal affective disorder (or SAD as it’s otherwise known).
The NHS estimates that one in 15 people suffer from some form of the aptly-acronymmed SAD, which has also been dubbed “winter blues”, with 2 per cent of the UK population suffering debilitating symptoms and 20 per cent experiencing milder forms. Only 12 per cent of us are totally aware that we have it, which can lead to some levels of distress when living with a sudden onset of unexplained symptoms.
Brought on by the short, dark days that the autumn and winter months bring with them, during which we experience far less exposure to sunlight, it is thought that our brain’s hypothalamus isn’t stimulated enough, leading to an imbalanced production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin (too much – it’s triggered by darkness) and happy hormone, serotonin (too little); plus our circadian rhythms become out of whack.
Another highly likely cause is a predisposition to produce less vitamin D; an array of studies have associated low levels of the vitamin with depression and, thanks to the lack of winter sunlight, our bodies are even less likely to produce it, particularly to high enough levels.
So how, exactly, can we tackle SAD?
A healthy diet is key
It might sound obvious but eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet is essential for helping the body get back to its best self. Those suffering from SAD symptoms will know that it will go against everything their body is asking them for—white, starchy carbs and sugar—but consuming foods like these will simply cause more cravings, thanks to a subsequent lowering of blood sugar soon after they’ve been eaten. It’s about eating the right kind of carbs: complex (or low impact) carbs that impact less upon the blood sugar levels. Think fibre-rich fruits like bananas and apples, nuts, beans, whole grains and vegetables like broccoli and leafy greens. Add some protein-rich foods in, too, to help fend off sugar cravings.
Take a Vitamin D supplement
“Taking a vitamin D supplement is essential,” says nutritionist Rosemary Ferguson. “You should look for a high IU while getting as much daylight as you can.” Studies suggest that we should look for vitamin D supplements of at least 600 IU daily. A good option are Solgar’s Vitamin D3 4000 IU capsules.
Forest bathe (or go for a walk outside)
Combining sunlight—or simply natural light—with a walk outside can do wonders for your mood. As well as encouraging the body to boost production of vitamin D, you’ll also reap the rewards of nature, which studies have shown can reduce stress, anxiety, and high blood pressure—try and get some outdoor light within two hours of getting up, to stand yourself in good stead for the day ahead. If you’re confined to an office for most of the day—aren’t we all?—ensure to make the most of any breaks you can muster, and try and position yourself close to windows to receive as much light as possible.
Exercise, exercise, exercise
They say that if doctors could prescribe it, exercise would be on all of our prescriptions. Getting our hearts racing triggers the production of our mood-boosting endorphins, helps de-stress and generally makes us feel ready to take on the world. Plus, if you combine it with nature, you’ve got the best of both worlds.
Try these yoga positions
“A 2008 study by the International Journal of Yoga Therapy has found that restorative yoga postures, combined with visualisation and breath work, can brighten moods and give people a real sense of empowerment,” says Triyoga’s yoga manager, Genny Wilkinson Priest. “Yoga in general can help people suffering with SAD to see that their anxiety and sadness will pass, and are not permanent states of consciousness. Seeing that it’s temporary gives people a sense of freedom, personal agency and balance.”
Wilkinson Priest recommends trying a supported child’s pose (where you position something comfortable beneath your head), lying in a right angle with your legs up against the wall (“viparita karani” in yogic tradition) with a stack of blankets beneath your pelvis, or reclining with a bolster placed lengthways down the upper back, feet pressed together and legs out to the side.
In lieu of proper daylight, technology can provide a helping hand. Light boxes or SAD lamps aim to mimic sunshine through artificial light and can be placed on your desk to expose the body’s cells to what they will perceive to be sunlight. All you need is 20-60 minutes of 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light – about twenty times as great as ordinary indoor lighting—daily to see a difference, studies show.
“You get around 400-500 lux from normal lights but for optimum mood and energy, we all need light to our eyes as bright as a spring morning. That has to be at least 2000 lux, so roughly four times brighter than a well-lit office.” says Malgo Dzierugo from Lumie. The brand’s Vitamin L lightbox delivers 10,000 lux and it takes half an hour sitting in a 16 to 50 cm proximity to feel a difference. “Most people find that light therapy in the mornings works best so try this first—all you have to do is position your lamp at an angle so that the light reaches your eyes.” The Seasonal Affective Disorder Association says this kind of therapy works for 85 per cent of cases.