It’s only 3.30pm and it’s already dark outside as I write this. I have not seen the sun for two days, the sky remaining a fashionable though not uplifting graphite grey.
Welcome to the Great British Winter! Since hitting 40, I have become more aware of and indeed am affected by the shorter days, feeling more tired, lethargic and generally a bit ‘down’. I feel like I just want to hibernate until the clocks go forward again, while constantly checking ‘winter sun’ deals on my laptop.
And it seems I’m not alone. While some people embrace the season’s crisp mornings and cosy evenings, a fifth of the population experiences the ‘winter blues’, a lesser version of SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, particularly in December, January and February.
SAD, which was first defined in 1987, is recognised as a winter depression, with common symptoms including lethargy and tiredness, persistent ‘low’ mood, lack of concentration, lack of interest in normal pursuits or pleasure, feeling anti-social, increased appetite with a craving for carbohydrates and even a loss of libido.
Most winter blues sufferers will experience some of these to varying degrees but for three per cent of Britons, the symptoms are severe and continual. According to the BMJ (British Medical Journal) women are four times more likely to suffer from SAD than men.
The condition is often linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the season’s shorter days, which can cause low levels of the serotonin, the hormone affecting one’s mood, appetite and sleep, which can cause feelings of depression. At the same time, the melatonin hormone, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle, can be produced in higher than normal levels in SAD sufferers causing sleepiness – a similar trait to that of hibernating mammals. The body clock is also affected by the later sunrise which can also lead to symptoms of SAD.
Hibernation is not a very practical solution, and, sadly, nor is wintering in the south of France for everyone (if only!), so what can be done to alleviate the symptoms?
NHS recommends several self-care treatments including making the most of the light that there is, by getting out and about as much as possible – even a brief lunchtime stroll or walk to work can be beneficial. On top of this, try to take regular exercise, particularly outdoors and preferably in a green space such as a park, so perhaps wrap up warm and get on your bike (cold and rain permitting) rather than hitting the gym if possible.
When indoors, try to sit near a window and make your work and home environment as light and airy as possible. Some people find light therapy helpful, using a medically-approved light box, as produced by Lumie or Phillips, for twenty to thirty to minutes each morning, or a sunrise alarm clock which gradually wakes the user up with increasing light, providing the body with a natural signal to adjust hormone levels.
Light boxes can produce up to ten times the intensity of normal household lights, up to 10,000 lux, but do not contain harmful UV rays. However, they are not recommended for those whose eyes are sensitive to light, so it is wise to get advice before purchasing such a device.
Nutrition-wise, it may be tempting to load up on comfort food but a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables, oily fish and fibre, is advised. Vitamin D and St John’s Wort supplements can also help.
Finally, and not too surprisingly, try to avoid possible stressful situations.
If these suggestions don’t work, then you should speak with your local GP who may advise ‘talking treatments’ such as counselling or CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) or prescribe anti-depressants such as SSRI.
Working from home, I can sometimes not leave until late afternoon, so I am making the effort to get out in daylight, even for a brief walk to the post box, which definitely helps. Otherwise, I’m making the most of the wintry pleasures I do enjoy – Christmas parties, mulled wine, log fires and catching up with my favourite classic films at home while practicing ‘Hygge’ (the art of cosiness).
On the plus side, the shortest day is fast approaching (22nd December), so the days will start to get longer, little by little. I’m still checking those winter sun deals though!
For further information on SAD, visit:
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